Nelson Mandela: Maybe Not a Saint, But He Kept on Trying and Gave Us All He Had

Mandela wasn't a perfect man. But he was a compassionate leader.

ByABC News
December 5, 2013, 6:12 PM

Dec. 5, 2013— -- "My head is bloody, but unbowed. I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul."

These are a few lines from the poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley, which Nelson Mandela kept on his bare wall in prison. And the lines above, and the poem as a whole are such a beautiful description of Mandela the human being. As many right now reflect on the life of Mandela and his place in the world, I would like to add my own reflection.

Yes, we all know the many elements: his fight against apartheid in South Africa for nearly his whole life, his nearly 28 years of imprisonment, and his leading his country and its people into a true democracy.

Mandela wasn't a perfect man. He had his own failings and made his own mistakes along the way of his life. And that made him a more compassionate leader -- a leader who approached his country, in his later years in life, less judgmentally and more open to consensus, and not fixated on retribution.

Life of Nelson Mandela: See the Photos

As Mandela himself said, "I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."

Yes, we are all sinners, falling and failing every day, but hopefully rising each day and moving forward. Mandela understood as well as anyone that every human being has light and darkness, a good side and a bad side. And he knew that progress in life and for the world wasn't about denying the dark side or acting like we each don't have demons, but to understand them and to feed the light in ourselves as best we can. Darkness wins when we fail and don't get up. It wins when we make a mistake, and judge ourselves unmercifully and don't move forward.

But the element of Mandela's life I most want to underline is something simpler, yet profound. As we look again at his journey, we see that in most people's minds he spent the prime of his life in prison. Nearly a third of his life (28 years), through his 40s, his 50s and his 60s, was spent in prison. Mandela didn't get out of prison until he was almost 72 years old.

Amazingly, it was in his 70s and 80s that the vast majority of his accomplishments occurred. He could have left prison in his later stage of life and just retired as most people in this country do. He didn't. He decided he had a whole new chapter of his life to live out late in life. His journey wasn't finished at 72; in fact, in many ways it was just beginning. And his country and the world benefited because he didn't retire into his golden years.

This is something all of us should keep in mind. When some of us think we don't have time to do something new, or the best years of our life have been lived out and it is time to fade away; or we have suffered wounds or lost hope, and just can't get up and do: It is then we should take the risk and write a new chapter for our lives.

Abraham Lincoln lost eight elections, failed twice in business, and suffered a nervous breakdown before he won the presidency. Walt Disney suffered bankruptcy early in his career and was betrayed by many of his friends and business partners along the way. Thomas Edison failed thousands of times before he invented the light bulb. Grandma Moses didn't create her paintings, for which she became famous, until she was 76, after she had to give up embroidery because of arthritis.

Just think of where this country and the world would be if these folks packed it up and went away before they fulfilled their life's purpose late in life.

Looking back at life is an important part of our path, and resting for moments along the way, and making adjustments going forward in times of pause is key. I don't believe frenetic constant striving is the goal or even helpful in making a contribution to the world. What is helpful is accepting that life is a series of falls and rises, mountains and valleys, and pushing and pausing. And our communities and our country will only benefit from each of us doing this until we draw our last breath. And as Mandela has shown, our most important years and victories may occur when our hair is gray or gone.

And to paraphrase the last two lines of the poem "Invictus," which was so important to Nelson Mandela, we each are masters of our fate, we each are captains of our soul.