“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison…When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.” — Nelson Mandela
Last week’s passing of Nelson Mandela has caused me to reflect on the parallels between his journey to personal and national healing, my chronic illness healing journey, and transformational work more generally. Mandela’s practice of reaching out to the very people who had injured him has always struck me as a powerful example of intentional healing. He reached out not only to powerful political and social opponents, but even to the guards who had physically and psychologically abused him during his years in prison.
His supporters and the world at large were astonished, even angered, by these peacemaking efforts, but Mandela knew that peace could not be achieved without forgiveness, and that peace was a two-way street: “…my mission [was] to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.” He understood that even his oppressors were, like him, victims, imprisoned by their own prejudice. He also understood that his own anger and fears could lead him to that same prejudice, that same prison.
And it’s not that Mandela wasn’t angry. He said that he could never forget the past and what had been done to him and his people. But instead of identifying with his wounds and allowing prejudice to rule him, he channeled the energy of his anger into healing — for himself, for his people, and for his enemies.
“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” — Nelson Mandela
This is the nugget I’m trying to get at. When we go to war with ourselves, with those aspects of ourselves that we wish we could simply be rid of, we create internal conflict that impedes healing and change. Instead, if we can acknowledge those parts of ourselves that we hide in the shadows — those fears, wounds, self-judgments — then we can ask those more difficult questions: “What is this asking of me?” “What do I need to ask of myself?” “What do I need to ask of others?”
One of my mentors encourages me to look into my shadows; at the fear, the anger, the judgments, the resentment. When I acknowledge that these darker feelings are there, I can invite them to come sit with me, as if we were sharing a camp fire, and I can listen to what they want to tell me, and so I learn from them, integrate them. As long as I try to keep the darkness at bay, out in the shadows, I’m not fully able to see the light side. So I had to listen it, have those conversations with it, share my needs and make it my healing partner.
For years I have been on the receiving end of one, painful, core question: “Are you really sick?” Loved ones, friends, doctors, have all intimated or overtly expressed the opinion that I just needed to “get over it,” that my illness was somehow “just in my head.” Even after we finally got our Wellness diagnosis, the doubt persisted. Even as my children struggled through serious illnesses resulting from their weakened immune systems, or my youngest struggled for her life because of the neurological side-effects caused by Wellness, the doubt persisted.
Here’s my truth: by far my worst pain, my worst enemy, the one who has caused me the most harm has been my own inner critic, my own self-doubt, my self-judgment. Not only did I question my illness, I blamed myself for it, for my kids’ health issues, for inconveniencing others, for so much. And the more I did this, the deeper I sank.
But when I finally broke and surrendered, when I finally accepted that I was sick and needed help, I was able to listen and hear what my illness — what I — needed.
In my case, I heard loud and clear that I needed:
a) to be in the moment, present for my life no matter what it looked or felt like;
b) to ask and receive help, because I needed it and deserved it;
c) to let go and allow myself to show up as I was, imperfect;
and eventually, I was called to:
d) start stepping into my gifts — to find my voice;
e) to advocate for Healing and change — by helping others focus on whole wellness, tending the positive, what wants to grow instead of fighting against the darkness.
Nelson Mandela is such a powerful role model, because it is so clear from his story and his words that he lived, deeply, what I aspire to. He shows that it’s possible to engage with our darkness, and that incredible healing can from that courageous process.
“One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.” ― Nelson Mandela