I confess I like a good quiz, though I have a bad habit of taking them way too seriously. They tend to bring out my competitive streak; after all, it’s nice to win, as our team did on Saturday. Not surprisingly, given the events of the past week, Nelson Mandela’s name came up among the questions.
Having grown up in the 1970s and 80s and followed the anti-apartheid movement during those years, his passing feels very much like the end of an era. I remember hearing him speak in Trafalgar Square some years ago. It was a cold winter’s afternoon and Mandela was already well into his eighties. It’s a time of life when most people are thinking of easing up if they haven’t done so already. Not Mandela. He was speaking in support of the Make Poverty History campaign, something he was absolutely passionate about. What shone through was his huge generosity of spirit, an incredible capacity to care about others, not just those he knew personally, but everyone, everywhere and in a very practical sense too. For me, his life epitomises love as a choice, a deliberate habit of mind that compels action regardless of the cost; in other words real love, not a mere feeling. Mandela’s speech stayed with me for a long time and I came to the conclusion that what he achieved was the result of an extraordinary act of the imagination. In the first instance, this meant the imagination to see and understand the fear that lay behind his oppressors’ actions, then to envisage how that fear could be stripped away and replaced with the trust and hope needed to create a society where equality, freedom and justice could flourish. Of course it’s one thing to imagine an ideal outcome, another to make it happen. Without resilience, patience and determination, Mandela’s dream might have remained just that.
Thinking about Mandela has made me reflect on the difference between dreams and fantasies. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the two. When I become discouraged, the idea of being a writer seems more like a fantasy than anything else ie a pretty fairy-tale that will never become a reality. Fantasies are pure illusion, sugar and cream for the mind and yes, it can be very pleasant indulging in a daydream. Who doesn’t like imagining the clothes or jewels they’ll be wearing when they accept their well-deserved Oscar, or the wise and gracious speech they’ll make? Pursuing a dream on the other hand is all about working slowly and surely towards a goal. It means doing everything in your power to make the dream come true, however hard the road may be. It means accepting the knock-backs, of which there are plenty, learning from them and then getting up, dusting yourself off, taking a deep breath and setting off again along the steep and rocky path. It can be very hard ignoring the voice at the back of your mind that keeps asking whether it matters if the dream doesn’t come true. Does it mean you’ve just been wasting your time, maybe even years of it? Is it the journey itself that counts, what we’ve learned, the people we’ve met along the way, how we’ve changed and grown in the process? Is that enough, without any recognition or success to crown it all? Maybe, but sometimes it feels like a very high price to pay. Mandela must have experienced many days of black despair; perhaps his greatest achievement was in overcoming it so triumphantly.


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