12/11/2013 07:54 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

Shining Lights

The human animal is, quite reasonably, afraid of the dark. When living in it, we seek light. In accepting the reality of Nelson Mandela's death, my sad heart is drawn to the light of hope he offers us all: history will be what we make of it.

I rejoice in Nelson Mandela's life as, in equal measure, I mourn his death. How very fitting that it came as the Northern Hemisphere approaches its longest, darkest nights. As humanity finds comfort in festivals of light in nature's darkest hours, lessons learned from this exemplary man's life seem nothing short of prescient as our world teeters on the brink of calamity because we are failing to reign in avarice and greed.

President Mandela was not born a hero, he was born a baby. He had to grow, as do we all. He struggled with himself, growing wiser as years turned to decades, living with no assurance of success in the bleak isolation of his prison cell. No one articulated better than Nelson Mandela himself the enormity of his audacity, committed to peace and a nonviolent struggle "against a government whose reply is only savage attacks on an unarmed and defenseless people." During 27 dark, imprisoned years, he struggled with his compatriots, as well as his own soul, resulting in all-inclusive strategies from which the entire world can -- and must -- learn, and none too soon.

Mandela's reach is incalculable. Almost a decade ago, we were vividly reminded by Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams that Ireland's quest for freedom had to be seen not only in the larger picture of 800 years of British oppression, but also in the context of the fall of the USSR, German reunification and of South Africa's remarkable transformation.

This kind of seismic shift does not happen in a vacuum. Soon after being freed from prison, before he was elected South Africa's president, Mr. Mandela made a pilgrimage to Atlanta to lay a wreath at the crypt Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Dr. King, Mr. Mandela fought for the conscience of the world while fighting for the soul of his nation. He embodied the wisdom of the West African proverb my Congressman John Lewis often invokes, "When you pray, move your feet."

To America's great shame, Ronald Reagan put the U.S. on the wrong side of history during those long dark years. With apartheid arguably at its height, Reagan vetoed Congress' 1986 bi-partisan bill calling for the release of political prisoners and sanctions on South Africa because of its apartheid laws. With Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he declared Mandela a "terrorist." To those currently seduced by reactionary rhetoric, we can never say often enough (quoting Mr. Adams,) "It's impossible to know what separates a patriot or freedom fighter from a terrorist. ... One man's securicrat is another man's terrorist."

Reagan's breach of faith with America's better angels was reprehensible but it did not stop history. Nor did it stop millions around the world who found their voices on behalf of oppressed, beleaguered South Africans. In our Atlanta neighborhood, a heart-wrenching "Free Nelson Mandela" sculpture went up the following year in Piedmont Park. It stands to this day, reminding us that even after the prison door of a great leader opens, the struggle for "peace and prosperity" is a struggle we must continuously embrace for all of humanity.

Reflecting on our loss now that President Mandela's tired old body has been released from a lifetime of struggle, I also think of current threats. They are human threats, posed by corporate and individual greed, people and organizations working for their own ends caring not a damn about the suffering of others.

Do these challenges meaningfully differ from those which confronted Nelson Mandela?

In thinking of how we must act on the faith that we can be lights in the darkest of times, I recall the late Chancellor of Indiana University Herman B Wells' wise admonition, "Make no small plans!"

When mythologist Joseph Campbell was asked about his approaching death, he offered his questioner solace in a metaphor. As with any creature that comes alive, life would end, Mr. Campbell said. But as far as we know, he continued, the light we generate while living goes out into the universe forever. President Mandela's light will always be there for us, illumining his shrewd insight, "It always seems impossible until it is done."

"Rest In Peace" never sounded more right than when applied to a champion of the best in humanity, the exemplary Nelson Mandela. You did your part, shining lights in unbelievably dark places. Now it's our turn.