Somewhere in my house are several copies of South Africa's 1994 election ballot. When I bought them, I was seeking more than just a piece of history. I was buying hope because they reminded me that the impossible can be possible if we stay true to our course.
By now, Nelson Mandela's journey from prisoner to the presidency of South Africa, from mere mortal to moral icon, has been told so many times that it almost feels preordained.
But during his prison days on Robben Island, Mandela and his fellow political prisoners had to fight for even the smallest convenience, such as the right to wear long pants and given sunglasses to shield their eyes from the harsh light glaring off rocks in the lime quarry they were forced to mine. He won some of those struggles only to discover more battles to come. Or, as Mandela is quoted as saying, "After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."
As we prepare to celebrate Mandela's 92nd birthday, I look at the hills in my life and realize that it is time for me to find those ballots.
In my life's work, not nearly as dramatic as Mandela's, efforts to diversify the media are at a potential turning point. After years of incremental progress, we have reached a standstill. What was once a hot topic is barely on the radar screen. While the media become whiter, America becomes browner, and our citizens seem to be at loggerheads on a variety of issues. Without a media equipped to help us understand each other, the possibility of splintering across the fault lines is greater than ever.
Of course, I am in no way trying to compare efforts to create a more inclusive media with Mandela's endeavor to reform a nation. However, I do think that lessons can be gleaned from lives lived in the extreme, lessons that can help those of us who live in the everyday.
My late father used to say that we could physically live only one life although biographies allowed us to absorb lessons from many lives. I thought about that as I was reading what Mandela had to say about courage, which then gave me insight into accomplishments.
"I learned that courage," he said, "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."
My guess is that Mandela would also remind us that the person who accomplishes goals is not necessarily the person to whom all things come easily but the one who works through the hard times.
When I get home, I'm going to dig out that ballot and bring it into the office to remind me that if Mandela could overcome 27 years of hard labor and walk out of prison poised to change the world, surely the rest of us can stay true to our goals.
That's not to say that I don't anticipate days when I will look out the window at the leafy, landscaped street in front of my office and wonder whether we will ever see the media live up to their promises to portray all segments of our society fairly and accurately.
On those days, I will look at my ballot and think about Mandela in his cell, a much harsher landscape, physically and politically. Then I will go back to work.
As we celebrate Mandela's birthday, I thank him for the gift of hope, a powerful motivator.