12/08/2013 09:21 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2014

Living Mandela

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart. -Nelson Mandela

Last week, the world lost one of its few moral compasses. Those of us who were raised studying Nelson Mandela's chief legacy, humbled by his tumultuous struggle against apartheid in his native South Africa, have continuously recognized him as a hero not simply for his work in South Africa, but for his impact on global minds. And among those who have raised the banner of justice throughout human history, Mandela proudly stood strong in his belief that in fighting for the rights of one group, he was fighting for those of humanity. Unlike many likewise prominent movers and shakers, Mandela presented a vision for South Africa that he believed ultimately emanated, and was needed, across borders. And as is often the tendency in reshaping popular global figures after their passing, one cannot and should not rightly mollify the tenacity of this global message, one which defiantly demanded the elevation of human rights across our world, very often at the expense of a seemingly inalterable political or social establishment.

Yet what undeniably made Mandela particularly unique as his activism progressed was not only his persistently staunch positions on justice, but his hand-in-hand belief that as justice is achieved, reconciliation, not the inherent bigotry of revenge, becomes a social necessity. Mandela frequently remarked on what he considered to be a healing process that must be realized, in spite of decades or even centuries of conflict.

Despite this, there are many today who have made Mandela into the flagship figure of their respective causes, while in the same breath breathing both bigotry and hatred. If we are to live Mandela's legacy, we must be willing to call ourselves to account as to whether in the course of our critical activism, we are among those who seek just solutions that embrace a long-term reconciliation with the descendants of the other, or simply a victory that turns the oppressed into an oppressor, thereby repeating catastrophic cycles.

Notwithstanding the challenges of human weakness, living Mandela simultaneously requires us to work diligently to be consistent in our desire for justice. A segment from one of his most telling remarks - "for to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others" - expresses this vividly. We each justly desire that our own freedom be protected. Yet in a free society, we must have the courage to stand in the face of others and say, when seeing a woman in a headscarf, a man wearing a turban or a yarmulke, or a person donning no symbol at all; when witnessing racial bigotry; or when seeing another in the path of harm caused by one of many forms of human arrogance; that they are unequivocally our equals in value - regardless of their expressed convictions or appearance - without finding the need to internally assess whether our lives are still slightly superior to their own. We want our freedom to remain certain and everlasting, but are we in turn willing to remain consistent in defending that of others to live within their human rights? When speaking of justice, this too is in line with Mandela's legacy.

Even in the absence of agreement with every word that Mandela spoke, or with every action that he took, I believe that one would be remiss in suggesting that his impact was not ultimately great, and ultimately positive. Mandela unapologetically beckoned us to live in the recognition that our freedom and ability to choose are undeniably linked to those of others. That we gaze with a broader vision at the often inherently if unintentionally self-centered nature of the social activism that arises from our convictions. And that we live with the understanding that with human dignity and justice as a sincere aim, there must always remain an intransigent quest not for everlasting conflict, but for mutual and lasting peace.