When I heard the news today of the death of Nelson Mandela, 95, I was reminded of the first time I read about him in the news. He had just been released from prison. In fact, he had been in prison since before I was born. In all the time it had taken me to journey through my years as a little girl, through my first love, and even into marriage, Mr. Mandela had languished in prison, a punishment for his political choices.
I remember being amazed only a year later when he was elected as the first black president of the African National Congress. It was the year my first child was born, and it seemed like such a miracle that this man who had been locked away behind bars for decades could have energized an entire nation to choose him as their leader.
Nelson Mandela isn’t really a rags-to-riches story. He was born into royalty in his in tribe in Africa and enjoyed the privilege of a college education and the opportunity to study law. He had advantages that many of his peers did not.
And as I heard about his death today, it struck me that he had not wasted his advantages, his birth into privilege, on a wanton life of self-indulgence. He used his privilege, his place in society for the greater good, and he spent his 95 years serving a cause he believed in – often paying a very large price for his convictions.
Here in the United States, most of us are born into what the rest of the world sees as privilege. We have the right to access a free education. We have a government and charitable institutions which help the needy, providing food, clothing, health care, and mental care for those who cannot provide for their own. We are a wealthy nation where many of us throw out electronics the rest of the world would be thrilled to own.
We have been born into privilege, and it begs the question: what are you doing with your privilege. Are you squandering your opportunities? Are you wasting your access to education, to fill your mind with knowledge and tools that can change the direction of your life? Are you taking for granted the opportunities you have, only doing the bare minimum to get by in life? Is there a need or a cause that has tugged at your heart strings, that you’ve ignored because it is easier to do nothing?
Let’s not squander our privilege. If you’ve been moved by the hunger of others, volunteer at a food bank. If you don’t like our education system, volunteer your time to help change it. If you think we need different leaders, become one.
Decades from now, someone, somewhere could be inspired enough by how you chose to use your privilege for good that it could inspire them to do the same. That is a powerful thing. Don’t waste it.