Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


In the Wake of Mandela

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On the cusp of a new year, I have that potent sense of déjà vu: I’ve been here before, looking forward and back with equal parts delight and dismay.

This past year had an abundance of shining moments—beauty, connection, excitement, satisfaction, inspiration, challenge. Some were small and personal, some were shared with the whole wide world. The year ahead will have its share too, I can already see them lining up.

The rear view mirror holds some terrors too—a few of them natural but far more due to the systemic disregard of people, places, ideas, opportunities. I have witnessed them in both my close-up circles and on a global scale in so many parts of this poor world. Some left rubble that’s still being cleared away, some continue unabated, some are just now queuing up.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” I hear in my mind’s ear.

Charles Dickens perfectly captures the vacillation I experience so acutely at this time of year. The whole passage from the opening of A Tale of Two Cities is worth thinking about: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

Wisdom and foolishness, belief and incredulity, Light and Darkness, hope and despair. It’s a conundrum but it’s not news: life and living have always been about this tangle of contradicting forces, competing interpretations. Our fate, if we’re paying attention at all, is to be in the muddle, working as best we can to create positive impacts, however small.

Like everyone else on this planet, I’ve been thinking a lot about the life of Nelson Mandela. I’m not sure we’ll see another man in my lifetime who so powerfully embodies the transformative potential of human dignity and human decency. After an unthinkable 27 years of the harshest punishment, he set about to enact genuine reconciliation with his captors—and he achieved it. “If you want to make peace with your enemy,” he said, “you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

Articulating a common goal, then spending our energy and creativity moving toward it rather than working against one another—that seems to me the essence of Mandela’s example. It sounds a lot like jazz, another practice that has both politics and peace at its heart.

Real peace is tenuous because there’s always foolishness to compete with wisdom, Darkness to counter Light. Real peace begins with tolerance, but demands that next step of actually working together toward a shared goal.

Mandela, in his long life, was clear in his vision and unflagging in his commitment to it. All of us are a little bit Mandela, and the world is looking for us to take stock, find ways to partner with both friends and enemies, then roll up our sleeves. Heaven knows there’s a lot to do.

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