What does it take to shape the essence of who we are? For an individual, it is likely to be one or a series of personal experiences. For a community it might be a shared experience, more often than not a calamity of some kind. But for the whole human race? Now that's something else.
Think of what has impacted us on that scale - religious figures like Buddha or Christ or Mohamed; evil figures like Pol Pot or Hitler or bin Laden. And then I think of Gandhi and King Jr. and Mandela.
They have affected me profoundly - not just in terms of who I am, but more than that, the type of person I aspire to be; and if I have one, what I would hope is the nature of my soul. I hope they have in some small way touched the better angels of all our natures.
We are so very lucky to have had one of these men inhabit our lifetime, to have personally experienced and been touched by his essence.
As I was driving home today, not long after I heard the news of Madiba's death, I was thinking about my own experiences with racism and intolerance (in my home country of Tanzania, and my adopted countries of Canada and the US); how I acted, and how I wish I'd acted.
I wrote this blog about Madiba a few years ago, it includes the poem (Invictus by William Ernest Henley) that accompanied Mandela during his 27 years in jail. There is immense strength and power in Henley's words, and there is even more in Mandela's actions.
If his death (and life) are to have meaning in our world, then his actions (like those of Gandhi and King Jr.) can not, must not stand alone. We have to walk in their footsteps, to demand of ourselves and of our elected leaders the tolerance and care that goes along with the word "humanity."
Humane is a powerful word. It demands immense things of us; it asks us to transcend our Darwinian urge to survive even at the cost of our fellow man, and recognize that our individual freedom and opportunities for greatness only comes when all in our community are also free and great.