12/10/2013 02:59 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Nelson Mandela, Forgiveness and Brothers and Sisters

How did he do it? How did he see stars instead of bars while in prison? Apartheid, suffering, and twenty-seven years of imprisonment did not stop him from leading a nation through a process of truth and reconciliation. Among the myriad of aspects of Nelson Mandela's life and legacy that amaze me, it's the ability to forgive that I have been contemplating lately.

Forgiveness can be a challenge, not only forgiving one's oppressors but also those nearest and dearest (unfortunately, sometimes those are also the oppressors). Classical Greek tragedies and Biblical tales of fights between brothers and sisters (think Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, the family murders of the Orestia) may well have been written after a few days at "home" with one's family of origin.

"You think you're enlightened?" My yoga teacher asks us, right before we head out for Thanksgiving. "Try spending a weekend with your family," she continues. The line always gets a big laugh. She closes class with a poem, attributed to Mother Teresa, called "Anyway," reminding us that although people are limited, we should still strive for forgiveness and goodness. It begins: "People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway."`

I try to remember that poem. The thing is, while my brothers and I cherish my dad's turkey and my mother's many dessert offerings and while we exchange witty quips and share deep-belly laughs, a few days together in our childhood home don't always leave us entirely thankful for one another. I swear -- I do try to take the high road. It's just hard to follow Mandela's example, even when the stakes are low.

Whether it's a nation of brothers and sisters or simply a small family, we face life's harshness as competitors for limited resources. As young children, we vie for our fair share of attention, love, the desired toy, or whatever we substitute in place of our original needs and desires. Hopefully, rather than scream "mine!" like toddlers in a nursery classroom, we learn to share the toys, the wealth, the national resources and power, and to give thanks. But as apartheid demonstrated all too explicitly, humans don't always develop and mature as morally as we should. Sometimes we confront life's struggles most viscerally on the small scale through the battles between brothers and sisters. So how do we forgive?

I had already been thinking about the dramas among siblings and the possibility for forgiveness the week before Thanksgiving when my father's older sister died. To be honest, they didn't have the most placid of relationships. There were years that they didn't speak much, like after my aunt accused my father of causing her cancer by creating too much stress around my grandmother's care. Explosive telephone conversations ended abruptly. They had no idyllic family model to guide them. Rather, they grew up after the Depression untethered, insecure, and facing violence. As young children, my father, his sister and their older brother lost their father to lung cancer. My impulsive and rather immature grandmother, with no family of her own nearby and disowned by her in-laws, lent her late husband's life insurance policy money to a neighbor who, unfortunately, lost it all. My father's older brother would mete out blows or long stretches of silence simply for a shared serving of food that he felt should have belonged only to him. But my father found solace and guidance in his sister, three years older than he, even if she did share the family's explosive temper. When he regaled us, his kids, with stories from his childhood, my aunt was often by my father's side in his antics. We loved the story of how one winter my young father tried to sell Christmas trees to help earn money for the family. Although his efforts went bust, the owner felt sorry enough for this sad ten-year-old boy that he let my father take home a tree as payment. Bringing the tree into his Jewish home, my dad feared what his brother might do upon discovery. So he and his sister snuck the tree in a closet, decorated it, and celebrated a makeshift holiday together in hiding. It was that same sister who introduced him to Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist Zionist youth group, challenging his intellect and awakening his political awareness. That group provided him a way out; it helped shape his path toward becoming a philosopher.

When my father spoke at my aunt's funeral, he didn't pretend that their childhood had been like the von Trapp family. He spoke honestly. As her own son acknowledged in his eulogy, my aunt was complicated. My father offered a full picture of his sister, describing the early neglect and loss she faced, her obstacles and setbacks as well as her joys and accomplishments. He could attest to a time beyond the reach of the others in the audience. Sharing those memories led him to reconciliation. Past the anger and the frustrations, he remembered the boy and girl who played Prince and Princess. That spirit of reconciliation enveloped the whole ceremony. We closed my aunt's funeral singing "Wouldn't it be Loverly," from My Fair Lady, a song that my aunt had sung with her son and daughter-in-law days before. The room resounded with love and forgiveness.

When I heard radio reports of people in South Africa singing to rejoice Nelson Mandela's life, I thought of the song that had been echoing in my head since my aunt's funeral. In the face of the struggles, the competition, and the brutality of life, "wouldn't it be loverly" if we, brothers and sisters, cousins and in-laws, could be true, forgive and reconcile, anyway?

* * *

"People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.
For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway."
― Mother Teresa