‘As I walked out the door toward my freedom. I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind that I would still be in prison.’
Nelson Mandela on leaving prison.
“For 20 years, Nelson Mandela directed peaceful, nonviolent acts of defiance against the South African government and its racist policies, including the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People.
In 1961, Mandela, who was formerly committed to nonviolent peace protests, began to believe that armed struggle was the only way to achieve change. In 1961, Mandela orchestrated a three-day national workers’ strike. He was arrested for leading the strike the following year, and was sentenced to five years in prison. In 1963, Mandela was brought to trial again. This time, he and 10 other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment for political offenses, including sabotage.
Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 of his 27 years in prison. During this time, he contracted tuberculosis and, as a black political prisoner, received the lowest level of treatment from prison workers.
For 13 years he had broken rocks from the sunken cliffs every day, the white limestone reflecting direct sunlight and almost costing him his sight.
Some of the worst cruelty to prisoners was the holding back or destruction of their letters, their all-important link to loved ones, and the ruthless censoring of daily news to make them believe their stand against apartheid was for nothing, the sacrifice of their freedom pointless.
An ear-splitting clanging would start up all over the prison at 5am to wake the prisoners. The cells were as cold as fridges, all year round. Prisoners slept on the floors with three blankets and no extra ones allowed, even in winter.
“Prisoners would be forced to line up naked in the courtyard to be hosed down with cold water by the warders. Racial discrimination even extended to food allowances. Black prisoners had 12 ounces of maize-meal porridge with no sugar or salt in it for breakfast, and a mug of black coffee. The coloureds [apartheid term for mixed race] and Indians had 14 ounces of porridge and bread.”
Excerpts from Christo Brand, former guard at Robben Island.
Most of us would be angry if we had been in this situation. In fact we get angry over the most ridiculous things. Someone used the last of the milk, they didn’t put the toilet roll on properly, they were late getting back to look after the children, the neighbors are making too much noise and on and on it goes. We are so intolerant of the people and the world around us. We become angry really quickly and we are always justified in doing so because we are in the right. We know how something should be done and if it is not the way we want it, we feel it is okay to lose our temper, yell, sulk, slam the door and walk out etc.
‘Any fool can start arguments; the honorable thing is to stay out of them.’ Proverbs 20:3
Many people have gone through the most extraordinary experiences that have pushed them to the limits of their sanity and all human reasoning but they have emerged not hating and despising and wanting to harm the people responsible but quite the opposite; they have chosen the path of forgiveness. In the recent movie based on the book ‘The Railway Man’ by Eric Lomax, we follow a journey that begins with the nightmares that remind the main character of enduring abuse at the hands of the Japanese enemy. It continues on to explore the desire to take revenge against the main perpetrator and ends with the understanding that no amount of retribution can pacify the pain of remembrance. And so we see the main character start a process of forgiveness and understanding the truth.
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life, sorrow and suffering enough to disarm any hostility. H W Longfellow.
Anger can come at any time. We see the instantaneous outbursts of road rage, domestic violence and murder every day in the news , in the newspapers, on social media. Actions that once the cold light of reality has been realized often bring about feelings of extreme regret and disbelief. Why do we do this? Fly off the handle! Blow a gasket! Go off the deep end! Go haywire! Crack up! Lose one’s mind!
If we look a little deeply at our personal situation, we can see that the whole of our existence is centered around what will please us. How can I enjoy, how can I be happy ? What can I do to have a greater amount of pleasure? Who can I make friends with who have a bigger house, car, swimming pool, etc than me? Who will I choose to live my life with? Someone who will do what I want and give me what I want . In general, this is our attitude to the world, the people and things in it. Me, me, me! It’s all about me, and when I don’t get what I want, if things are not going the way I want, then I get angry. My car broke down, my kids are making too much noise, my boss won’t give me a promotion, my wife doesn’t want to have sex, the neighbors are having a party and I can’t sleep. A million things can make us explode. This attitude is based upon one’s feeling of their own self importance, their own worthiness . They feel that they should be getting more respect.
‘There are two things a person should never be angry at, what they can help, and what they cannot.’Plato
Everyone wants to be happy but looking for this happiness in the things of the material world creates frustration and resentment. Happiness can be found by living a spiritual life . What does this mean and what does it have to do with getting angry? A spiritual life means a life in harmony with the Supreme Person, the Lord of everything, God, who goes by millions of names, the Supreme purifier of all our misguided emotions and feelings. While we are in a state of anger we cannot approach God. Lord Jesus speaks of this in the Bible, ‘But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’ Mathew 6.15
If we are angry and hateful toward someone we cannot expect the Supreme Father to forgive us. We cannot pray, ‘Oh forgive my sins against you’, and still hold in our hearts hate and anger toward anyone. Because of our connection to God and all living beings, we can never be happy while we hold onto anger and resentment towards others. To overcome anger, we must learn to forgive.
The key is humility. Lord Caitanya who appeared 500 years ago stated, ‘One should chant the Holy Names of the Lord in a humble state of mind, feeling oneself to be lower than the straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than the tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige, and ready to offer all respects to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the Holy Names of the Lord constantly.’
We hear this idea in many philosophies and faiths; humbleness, humility, meekness. How does one acquire this state of being? The advice given is ‘to be more tolerant than the tree’. The example is the humble tree. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like, rain, hail, snow, searing heat, the tree stands and accepts it. Someone comes and breaks off a branch or takes to the tree with a chainsaw. We need to become as tolerant as the tree.
And this. ‘Feeling lower than the straw in the street.’ Straw is strewn over the streets in some countries. This straw is dirty with animal droppings, waste, rubbish and all the other types of debris. We are advised to be lower than this. How we become angry at people finding fault in us if we are actually feeling that this is our position? Feeling that no-one is lower than me, everyone is more worthy than me so I offer all respects to everyone.
“If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, “He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.” by Epictetus
If we are to make real changes it is advised that we completely and fully give up any idea of ourselves as worthy of respect. It is in this condition of surrender that we can hear the Lord speaking to us within our hearts, to forgive those whom we think have offended us. All of your anger must be given up. It cannot be partial or conditional; I forgive but these are my terms and conditions.
The forgiveness you show to all those who you think have offended you, must be complete and from the heart. It is in this state that you are able to taste love for God, to experience the true happiness we are all striving for a loving relationship with Him and all His parts and parcels, all fellow human beings, all creatures, all living beings. This is our choice; to be flailing around the world being offended by everyone and everything and as such being far away from our spiritual life or we can live a life offering respects to everyone regardless of how you are treated and being in a position of humbleness and receptiveness to the Supreme Person and His love.
‘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.’