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It Always Seems Impossible Until it’s Done

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by Charles M. Blow

One of the great lights of the world went dark on Thursday. Nelson Mandela left this world, having enormously altered it.

And yet, the extraordinary example that he set lives on and provides a lesson — a blueprint — for all of us who still labor for justice, equality and freedom.

Be convinced of your cause. Conviction, character and consistency are sorely lacking in our modern era of fame-chasing, poll-testing and comment-reading. The status quo has a way of lulling the masses into complacency and acceptance. It’s known and familiar. There are always those whose lives are comfortable and whose livelihoods are secure under it.

Upsetting the status quo — or upending it — is always a radical proposition and is often an unpopular one, sometimes even among those who suffer under the entrenched system. Your cause may be unpopular, but history has demonstrated again and again that it will look kindly on the just.

First, be a fighter. Time has a way of rendering history smooth and digestible, of polishing away the rough bits and sweetening the bitter. Mandela was not only a lovely, grandfatherly figure; he was also a freedom fighter, a man willing to commit his life to — or even sacrifice it for — what he believed in.

Mandela’s African National Congress was once deemed a terrorist organization by both his home country, South Africa, and by the United States. And America’s view of Mandela and of South Africa’s system of apartheid cannot be whitewashed, even as we now venerate Mandela in death.

As Noam Chomsky wrote in his 2010 book “Hopes and Prospects”:

“Through the 1980s, U.S. trade with South Africa increased despite the 1985 congressional sanctions (which Reagan evaded), and Reagan continued to back South African depredations in neighboring countries that led to an estimated 1.5 million deaths. As late as 1988 the administration condemned Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress as one of the world’s ‘more notorious terrorist groups.’”

Be brave. Courage is not required to execute that which is easy or convenient. As the Texas progressive author and agitator Jim Hightower once put it, “Even a dead fish can go with the flow.” Courage is drawing up your shoulder and pushing into the resistance. Courage is doing what is unpopular or dangerous or discomforting because, even if you must do it alone, it is the right thing to do.

As Mandela put it: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” We all feel fear. In fact, fear the person who claims that he or she does not. But fear withers under the heat of righteousness. It cannot spread when it is cornered by those of noble conviction.

Remember that no one can divest you of your basic humanity without your submission and allowance. Discrimination and injustice are insidious, virulent scourges that the world is working hard to remedy, but they remain stubbornly resistant to complete eradication. Even as we labor to be rid of them, let us all retain our resolve and rise up in our dignity.

I like to think of it the way Zora Neale Hurston once put it: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” The person consumed by discrimination morally subjugates himself or herself, as a matter of principle, to the person free of it, leaving the person free of it with the moral high ground.

Never underestimate the power of grace. Mandela’s immeasurable grace and equanimity, his presidency and his efforts at reconciliation in South Africa will forever serve as an example to the world of the true possibilities and power of the human spirit. We so often think of power as force, but there is also enormous power in love, understanding and forgiveness. Demonstrating kindness to those who have treated you cruelly is an act of moral supremacy. It is the most powerful of human exercises, because in so doing, you conquer the self and diminish your enemy.

Finally, remember that all things are possible for those of strong will and unwavering perseverance. Those who can’t imagine change reveal the deficits of their imaginations, not the difficulty of change. As Mandela put it, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

(This column originally appeared in the New York Times December 6, 2013 under the title “A Lesson Before Dying”)

Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at chblow@nytimes.com.”

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