December 11, 2013

I live for revenge. I dream about it — daydream, actually. I want to get even with all the people who have hurt me, dissed me, failed to pay me sufficient honor, trifled with and in other ways failed to show me the respect, even awe, to which I am indisputably entitled. I am,, in other words, no Nelson Mandela.

A mourner holds a copy of the front page of "Pretoria News" featuring a portrait of Nelson Mandela. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)
A mourner holds a copy of the front page of “Pretoria News” featuring a portrait of Nelson Mandela. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

This cannot come as news to you. But my point is not that I am not a great man — and he, most certainly, was — but it is this equanimity, this tranquility, this admirable and yet vexing ability to deal with the detestable — that raises him above most people. Maybe it was sheer pragmatism that insisted that he deal amicably with a white power structure that had jailed him, but everything about him — his bearing, the look in his eyes — suggested that he simply did not have an ounce of revenge in him. He would not stoop to hate. How incredible.

After Mandela died, I wrote nothing about him. I simply had nothing to say — nothing original, that is. I had written about him several times before and he long occupied my thoughts. I was in South Africa when he was in prison and even though he was locked up on Robben Island, you could really feel his presence everywhere. I would sometimes look at picture of him as a young man — so handsome, so appealing — and also at pictures of Winnie — so alluring, so boldly attractive — and think of what they had given up. It takes a strong man, and woman, to walk away from love. It takes, I guess, a great cause.

But in the days following Mandela’s death, it was this business about not seeking to settle scores that I heard over and over again. It came to haunt me. I had to wonder about it — to admire it, of course, but wonder about it nonetheless. I sometimes thought he was letting us all off the hook — all of us who did nothing to end apartheid in South Africa. I was not one of those, actually, since I condemned it in print and condemned, also, those who either approved of it or thought — it’s hard to believe now — that the United States should leave well enough alone. I want those people to feel ashamed. I always wanted Mandela to stare them down, demand “Where were you?” when the police were beating, shooting, jailing people. Mandela said nothing of the sort.

Primo Levi, the Italian writer, was likewise praised for his tolerance. As a Jew, he had spent 11 months in one of Auschwitz’s satellite camps, and the marvelous books he wrote afterwards — particularly “Survival in Auschwitz” — lack the vindictive, the cry for revenge, the justified screed of the unjustly persecuted. He sought solace in his work as a chemist and he almost had me believing that work is the remedy for all ills until, in 1987, he probably committed suicide by throwing himself off a third-floor landing. (Some friends insisted it was an accident.) Elie Wiesel said Levi had actually died 40 years earlier at Auschwitz. I agreed.

Mandela, though, never gave his jailers the satisfaction of thinking he was ever jailed. Maybe because he was not a writer — we are a self-centered lot — he made his movement, not himself, the primary cause. That’s why he stepped down after one term as president and that’s why he never sought revenge. I don’t think — I can’t believe — he ever forgot or ever forgave, but he knew his personal feelings were, in the scheme of things, unimportant. Greatness such as his is rare indeed and, of course, had the altogether wonderful effect of making his enemies seem small. I, for one, hope they felt that way as well.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.