You know how I said the other day that sometimes words and ideas can come out wrong? Well, I’m taking a risk here, and I hope it makes sense to you.
Nelson Mandela died last night and his death hit me harder than I thought it would. I’ve been thinking about him ever since. This morning, however, I realized that he had been almost exactly my age when he was imprisoned. For 27 years. I started to imagine what it would be like if I were to be suddenly removed from my family and friends, from my livelihood, from the causes I believed in. For 27 years. From age 45 to age 72. At a certain point, wouldn’t you think that your life and your work was behind you? Wouldn’t despair seep in? Mandela didn’t know that he would live to be 95, that he would have 23 years after prison, to live, to rule, to laugh, to love and to offer wisdom and hard-won hope. I walk through a cemetery each morning with my dog and here’s the thing: some people die at every single age. There are babies who died the day they were born and men and women who lived past 100. We don’t know.
And here’s where you might think I’m pushing an analogy or worse that I am equating very unequally weighted matters. Let me say from the outset that I am not weighing them equally. However, in my imagining this morning about Mandela and about being shut up for 27 years, I thought about writing and publication, about rejection. Science is almost always a young person’s game: most discoveries and revolutionary scientific theories come from young thinkers and scientists. Literature is not like that. Like my cemetery, there is a spectrum of ages at which writers publish. There are the precocious geniuses but there are also those whose first book is published well into what others might call retirement.
The challenge is to be able to hold onto hope. The challenge is to be realistic and yet not despairing. The challenge is to stay true to one’s calling and purpose, to tell the story, to keep telling the stories, whether the words are set free into the world or not.
You see, what I imagined was not so much that I was locked up for 27 years but that my words were. What if my words were locked up for the foreseeable future, for possibly the rest of my human existence? What if I knew that it looked like my words would not be published for the next 27 years? Would I keep writing? Would I lose faith?
As I said, I am not equating the struggle of someone fighting for the freedom of his people with a series of rejection letters from publishers. And yet. And yet. Someone said of Mandela, “We saw in him what we seek for ourselves.” And what I seek in myself is the ability to be true, regardless of consequence, to be faithful even when rejection comes, to keep on doing what I am called to do simply for the reason of the call within me.
What awes us about Mandela now that his whole story is told is that he managed to hold onto his calling, to cast aside all the things that would have destroyed his hope. I am so glad for him that he had the last 23 years, but I suspect it was the crucible of the 27 years locked away that truly made him who he was. And likewise, I want to learn from the hard times and the rejections. I want to learn to keep telling the stories with hope that one day they will indeed be heard.