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Mandela's Transformation: A Lesson for Us All

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Today, Nelson Mandela is in the hearts of many.

Renowned around the globe as a symbol of equality, freedom, and moral fortitude, Mandela is one of the most revered leaders and public figures of our time. His face is associated with peace and persistence and his name consistently comes up next to the likes of Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Mandela's international legacy is build upon his lifelong campaign against South Africa's segregationist apartheid system and the incredible story of how he survived 27 years in prison to be elected the first black president in the country's first-ever fully representative election. He is widely considered the founding father of South Africa's democracy, and is often referred to as tata -- the Xhosa word for "father" -- by South Africans.

While Mandela truly is the man we all celebrate him to be, there is a nuance to his story that is often missed by the casual observer. And it's an oversight that has profound learning for all of us.

When Mandela was born in 1918, he was given the name Rolihlahla -- a name that in his native Xhosa clan colloquially meant "troublemaker." Though his forebears couldn't have known it then, it was as if they had put the writing on the wall. Over the next 45 years of his life, Mandela consistently shook things up. Most of the time, he shook things up in the way we all remember -- through mass organizing, speeches, and nonviolent protests. However, there was another chapter to Mandela's troublemaking that many forget -- he led violent resistance and planned guerrilla warfare.

In 1961, frustrated by their slow rate of progress, he and other members of the African National Congress voted to militarize part of their operations, creating the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), or "Spear of the Nation." Mandela argued that it was a necessary step and leaned on an African proverb stating, "The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands." Mandela became the Commander in Chief of the MK and ended up traveling throughout Africa and Europe learning the art of guerrilla warfare as well as voraciously reading texts by other revolutionaries like Mao Tse-tung and Fidel Castro. In late 1961, the MK announced itself publicly with a series of bombings across the South Africa.

Though Mandela was keen to expand the MK's sabotaging operations and move toward guerrilla warfare, he never got that chance. In 1962, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for relatively minor charges. Less than two years later, the South African government was able to definitively connect Mandela to the MK's leadership and sentenced him to life in prison for sabotage.

What followed is the better-known part of Mandela's story: a harsh and bleak 27 years of imprisonment in which he often had to perform intense manual labor, eat tasteless gruel, and have limited contact with the outside world. Then, in 1990, he was released from prison and addressed the throngs of his rejoicing countrymen with the words, " I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy, and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people." He left prison and instead of calling for vengeful revolution, he championed unifying reconciliation. He immediately went to work on eradicating apartheid and, four years later, was elected president -- all via nonviolent means.

This is where the oft-forgotten part of his story meets the well-known part of his story in a remarkable way. Given who Mandela was when he entered prison -- a man coordinating and leading violent opposition -- it's amazing to witness who he was when he left prison -- a man recommitted to the power of peace. It's especially remarkable because his transformation took place in prison. One would think that if there were any place to breed and compound thoughts of violent retribution, prison would be it. But that was not the case for Mandela. In fact, Mandela not only left prison calling for peace but, perhaps even more powerfully, for forgiveness. As he would later reflect, "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison." And it wasn't just something he saw fit for himself; he called on others to do the same, writing, "All of us who are hostages of the past must transform ourselves into new men and women who shall be fitting instruments for the creation of the glorious new South Africa which is possible and necessary to realize."

In this way, one of Mandela's greatest legacies is his example of transformation through forgiveness. He made a decision to change his fundamental view and therefore himself by choosing to let go of the narrative he told about his past and to forgive. He chose to look at what happened yesterday and tell himself a new story about what was possible tomorrow. He spent 27 years in prison, but while he was there he was freeing himself the whole time -- freeing himself from his past resentment, anger, and violence.

Though we are approaching a world without Mandela, his lesson lives on in each of us. It lives on whenever we choose the transformative power of forgiveness, whenever we choose to let go of our narratives about our past and chart a new future.

The world is a better place because of you Mr. Mandela.