There’s a line in To Kill a Mockingbird, right near the end as Atticus Finch is leaving the courtroom, Reverend Sykes tells Scout to, “…Stand up, your father’s passin’”
In that moment a whole community of people pay respect to a man who took on a doomed cause but fought with integrity and passion right up to the end. A community recognised courage, honour and commitment finding someone worthy of respect and admiration where they had never found it, nor even looked for it, before.
It’s an awesome moment – a literary and cinematic landmark, perhaps even a cultural milestone too.
I got to thinking about this following the loss of two great men in this last couple of weeks or so … one, the whole world knows about, and another not so well known.
We have been, we are and we will be inundated with memories and biographies of Nelson Mandela over the next few weeks, perhaps even months, as his legacy is dissected by many people much smarter than me. This is how it should be. We should remember and celebrate the life of ‘Madiba’ and the incredible lessons of reconciliation and forgiveness that out of his own personal experience shaped the formation of the new “Rainbow Nation” of South Africa.
The world rightly pays attention when someone like Mandela dies.
I think that when we look at the passing of great people we can often feel somehow intimidated as much as we are inspired; we look at their impact and admire it, whilst at the same time find ourselves thinking that we might never match their example. With Mandela, already we are hearing phrases like “the greatest statesman of his generation” and he has long been known as “the father of a nation” and that somehow elevates him to a status that makes him somehow both more and less than human at the same time. We sometimes lose the person in the myth, we lose the man in the legacy.
Lots of memories will be shared and many lessons may well be learned through the next few weeks as people evaluate the life of Mandela and his legacy – lessons about forgiveness and character and integrity and compromise, lessons that bring to life ideas like “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Inspirational quotes will be posted on Facebook, documentary makers will produce countless hours of television, a few misjudged ‘selfies’ may well appear and it may well be a good moment to put a crafty tenner on Idris Elba to win a few acting gongs – and there’s a part of me that recognises that is how things should be.
The hard thing for someone like me in all this is to not let my cynicism with regard to some of those who will comment over the coming days and weeks stop me from paying attention to the things that I should. I know I’m already sick of politicians of every party banging on about how inspirational Mandela was to them, how they hung on his every word blah, blah, blah, blah … Somehow, for me, the bleating of middle-aged white guys from the public school sector doesn’t resonate with the life and example of a man imprisoned for his political beliefs and the colour of his skin. However, I can’t let that stop me from paying attention to the things I should.
Like Scout, and all those standing in the gallery of that courtroom, I should stand to mark the passing of a good man …
I stood in the pew of St Theresa’s church a couple of weeks ago, at the funeral service of the father of an old friend. The church was full – of people wanting to pay their respects; family, friends, members of the church congregation and members of the local community whose lives had all been touched by the life and example of my friend’s dad.
When I heard the news about my friend’s dad who finally succumbed after a hugely courageous fight against a type of Parkinson’s Disease that my friend simply called “horrific”, I had a moment of aching sympathy. In the next moment, however, I found myself unexpectedly confronted (and comforted) with a series of personal memories that made me smile with reminiscence. Thinking about it now, it’s the very domesticity of those memories; their simple familiarity – recalling the tone and quality of voice, the simultaneous intensity and twinkle in the eye, the fabulous eyebrows and above all the huge smile and welcome when I once knocked on his door unexpectedly (once he’d worked out that it was me underneath my hairy art student appearance!) – that make them so important.
Those things made me glad to stand up for the passing of a good man.
With Mandela there will be images and memories that are seared into the collective consciousness – him walking out from Robben Island, presenting the Rugby World Cup to Francois Piennar whilst dressed in a Springbok shirt, even silly things like meeting the Spice Girls, and his apparent willingness to dance at every opportunity.
My friend delivered the eulogy for his father with trepidation, worried that somehow he would not be able to do justice to his dad – not that he should have feared – and one image-cum-phrase has stuck with me since. My friend mentioned that his father loved to dance, at family weddings and such like, and that he was usually the ‘last man standing’ at the end of the night – a picture that made me smile. My friend, however, raised the bar somewhat by also telling us that his dad was also usually the first one on the dance floor too!
The first to the dance floor, and the last to leave.
When you dance – really dance – you enter in to the rhythm and flow of the music; you listen, you let the music permeate you, saturate into you and then move with it, as it resonates within. When you dance – really dance – you respond with everything you have – with exuberance and joy, leaving ‘nothing in the locker’ and embracing the moment as a cherished gift.
As monumental as Mandela was, as moving as the story of his Long Walk to Freedom is, as inspirational as many of his sayings are, I find myself drawn repeatedly to the idea that we should be “The first to the dance floor and the last to leave.”
My friend told us – with entirely appropriate pride – of his father, a man who lived his life with honour, integrity, commitment, drive and passion throughout. A man who loved his work, his family, study, music and dancing with a sense that he would take life and wring every last precious drop out of every possible moment.
I like that idea very much.
To me, it’s a more accessible, more inspirational message as it exists in a frame of reference, a life, I can understand to a much greater extent – it allows me to think that I too might be able to embrace my life and its varied opportunities with integrity, humility and a desire to use things and love people – not the other way round! It allows me to understand that whilst my life may not be an inspiration to millions, it can still (and should, and does) carry a significance and a meaning for those I live with, work with, worship with.
It makes me want to be amongst those who are – intentionally, habitually, and consistently –
“First to the dance floor, and the last to leave”