Here are some of the lessons I took away to help cope with life’s hardest challenges:
1. Cherish the positive times.
At the beginning of his imprisonment on Robben Island, Mandela was only allowed to receive mail every six months and his in-person visits from family were even less frequent. This meant there were sometimes gaps of two years between visits from his wife Winnie. Mandela wrote, “The only thing worse than bad news about one’s family is no news at all. It is always harder to cope with the disasters and tragedies one imagines than with the reality, however grim or disagreeable.”
Mandela cherished the rare occasions that he was able to spend with his wife. He would vividly run through each visit over and over again in his head. He built a mental recollection of their time together, and incorporated details about what she wore, how she looked, how she moved. Reliving these conversations in his head helped bring happiness to his days even when they were so difficult and monotonous.
We can all take more time to cherish the things in life that bring us great joy. The peaceful moments with a loved one, the experience of an awe-inspiring sunset or the feeling of pride and elation after conquering a goal or challenge. Our experience of happiness that runs through each of these moments isn’t exclusive to the moment itself but can provide an ongoing sense of joy — even during the most trying times.
2. Cherish your relationships.
Mandela found himself in solitary confinement for the most trivial of things. On one occasion he was put in isolation for being found with a newspaper in his cell at a time when newspapers were considered contraband. He wrote, “I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there is only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks.”
For many years the prisoners were made to work in the limestone quarries where they labored in the intense South African heat whilst being blinded by the glare of the sun on the white limestone. But even this was made more tolerable by the companionship of other prisoners. Mandela wrote, “We supported each other and gain strength from each other. Whatever we knew, whatever we learned, we shared, and by sharing we multiplied whatever courage we had individually.”
When we surround ourselves with strong, positive relationships, we become much stronger than we could ever be alone. Surround yourself with these relationships as they can provide a source of strength even when you don’t have any of your own to give.
3. Be optimistic.
Despite being sentenced to life imprisonment, Mandela always remained optimistic about his future. He wrote, “I never thought that a life sentence truly meant life and that I would die behind bars. Perhaps I was denying this prospect because it was too unpleasant to contemplate. But I always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine as a free man.” He continued: “Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed towards the sun and one’s feet moving forward.”
Being optimistic doesn’t mean deceiving yourself. There is very little benefit in wearing rose-tinted glasses and pretending everything is okay when it’s not. But optimism means acknowledging and accepting the situation you are in, and choosing to make the best of it. Choosing hope and action over despair and self-pity.
Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl also echoes this idea. After several years spent in concentration camps, he wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
4. Have a big vision.
At his trial, Mandela said, “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
There were risks of abuse, imprisonment and even death but the African people understood the risks and welcomed them in pursuit of the harmonious South Africa they envisioned. With a compelling cause and unwavering dedication, you can overcome virtually all adversity, or as Nietzsche puts it: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
No matter what we face, we are capable of far more than we realize. Mandela wrote, “The human body has an enormous capacity for adjusting to trying circumstances. I have found that one can bear the unbearable if one can keep one’s spirit strong even when one’s body is being tested.”
There will be times in life that require each of us to face difficulties head-on. We’re fortunate that today most of our struggles won’t involve decades of political imprisonment, but that often doesn’t make them any easier or less painful to deal with. Whatever darkness you face, just know that you are strong enough to move forward.
Nelson Mandela wrote, “Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation; your spirit can be full even when your stomach is empty.” With this in mind, enjoy the positive times, surround yourself with incredible people and look for the best in every situation. Decide on the strong “why” that is going to pull you forward no matter what you face.
A life well lived is not one of perpetual happiness nor one with the absence of pain, but it can be found if you dedicate yourself to make the most of every moment.