There are few that would argue that Nelson Mandela was an exceptional man, an inspiring man. Many may ask ‘how did he do it; how did he emerge after 27 years in jail to become the president of South Africa and be strong and forgiving enough to invite the prison guards who watched over him to attend his inauguration and sit them in the front row’?
It is hard to know what makes a great person great, or more precisely, what makes an ordinary person great. As with most things in our lives, what we think about ourselves, our situation and the world around us directly affects how we feel and behave. Nelson Mandela focused on change, forgiveness and peace, when all around him pointed to the opposite being reality. Because he was thinking positively he felt positive and behaved in a positive way. We all have the ability to think something positive about our lives or whatever situation we are in. Even when faced with two terrible life choices, one is usually (even marginally ) better than the other.
By examining our choices, by looking for positives, changing our thinking, we can change our feelings, our behaviours and our overall mental health.
Whilst in his prison cell Nelson Mandela could have thought of his situation as (A) ‘I am in prison, I am alone, nobody cares for me’ OR he could have thought (B) ‘even though I am in prison, I have not been forgotten, I am not alone, people will continue the struggle for peace and equality’. Which do you think he would have chosen to think?
Most people will probably think (B) is how he would have been thinking all those years he spent in jail. Why? Because we instinctively know that thinking positively is good for us, it boosts us, it gives us what we need to move forward, yet, when in our own ‘cell’ our own ‘prisons’ we don’t seem to be able to come up with the same answer and we focus on the negative. Hence, for example, the teenager who is struggling with their sexuality or being bullied may think of their life as a prison and think as Mandel may have that ‘I am in prison, I am alone, nobody cares for me’.
It is up to each of us to recognise that many people in our lives are struggling, feeling as if they are living in their own prison: some feel so trapped that they think of suicide. As a society we need to be aware that by being present, by being aware, by listening and by noticing that someone is ‘stuck’ in a negative frame of mind that we can help them. By reminding a person that they have a choice about how they think of their situation, by reminding them that they are not alone, that people care and that things will get better we can help move them from their negative thoughts into more positive thoughts which in turn will help shift their feelings and behaviour: it can help get them out of the prison constructed of negative thoughts.