Imagining Nelson Mandela’s “dash”

Linda Ellis wrote a poem entitled, “The Dash,” about the dash that stands between the date a person was a born and the day the person dies as a symbol for the life and legacy of that person. I first became aware of “The Dash” at a memorial service I attended last month and found it to be a paltry visual representation of one’s existence. However, after further consideration, I began to think more about the dash, the symbol of a life lived, as one that could vary in length, design, or color. In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing this week, I thought again of the poem’s message, “What matters is how we live and love/and how we spend our dash,” (Ellis, 1996) as a way to remind us that we have the power essentially to draft our own eulogies in what it is that we do with our lives.

Without a doubt, Mandela’s dash can be imagined as a bold one, perhaps in larger font than the text itself to indicate the evolution of “terrorist” to empathic leader. I came across an article that suggested that Mandela and a handful of other inspirational leaders are to be admired not simply for their fine accomplishments, but more for that fact that they appear to have achieved a level self-actualization that many strive to attain. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is topped by self-actualization, which is the apex of a human’s psychological life. Though there are many schools of therapeutic approaches, most of them share this state of self-awareness and the maximization of one’s fullest potential as the end goal.

Surely we will remember Mandela as a resilient optimist, a gracious forgiver, a creative problem solver, and a fearless advocate. The spin on characterizing Mandela as self-actualized also seems fitting; here was a man who demonstrated the most delicate act of forgiveness following a period of violence and uprising.

How will you remember Mandela? Alternatively, how would you want your dash imagined?

Below is a link to “The Dash” poem and two links regarding Mandela’s “dash” – just a few of the many lessons we can learn from his lifetime.

The Dash Poem:


Chambers, C. (2013) Was Nelson Mandela the pinnacle of human psychology? The Guardian. Retrieved from:

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5 Responses to Imagining Nelson Mandela’s “dash”

  1. aliatmspp says:

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  3. Christy says:

    RIP Madiba. There are only few people who have the capability to impact others life with their deeds and Madiba is the only inspiration of our generation. I and my kids are wearing Madiba t-shirt to honor him.

  4. Mirza Ghalib says:

    WHAT MAKES NELSON MANDELA SPECIAL ? So what, exactly, is it that makes Nelson Mandela so special? Apart from the fact that he emerged from 27 years in apartheid prisons bearing so little malice. And that he insisted on “reconciliation” being central to a truth commission in order to heal wounds caused by years of bitter racial hatred. And that he donned a Springbok jersey and took to the field during the 1995 rugby World Cup final in a bold bid to unite the nation behind the mainly-white South African team. And that he stepped down after just one term as president, unlike too many world leaders who, once given a whiff of power, cling to it until it destroys them or they destroy the nation they are leading. These are some of the anti-apartheid icon’s better known qualities. But for journalists lucky enough to track his remarkable career from the day he walked out of prison in 1990, through the years of transition to the first all-race elections and the presidency in 1994, and on until the day in 1999 that he bowed out — far too quickly for many — of the political arena, there was more, much more. This was no ordinary politician. Covering the “Mandela story” was a life-enhancing experience. He humbled us all into trying to be better human beings and, more especially, to embrace reconciliation at a time when all South Africans, black and white, were still bearing the scars of apartheid. Take the time when — during a very tense political campaign rally in Alexandra township on the edge of Johannesburg, when anti-white sentiment was whipping through the crowd after yet another massacre of black people reportedly by a white “third force” — Mandela stopped mid-speech and fixed his attention on a white woman standing somewhere towards the back. “That woman over there,” he said with a broad smile, “saved my life. She nursed me back to health when I had TB.” He called her on stage and embraced her warmly, recounting how in 1988 while in Cape Town’s Pollsmoor prison he had contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to hospital where he had been under her professional nursing care. The mood in the crowd changed. Large roars of approval drowned out the snarled demands for revenge. And there was the time when, as South African president, Mandela was hosting a meeting of the Southern African Development Community, a regional economic grouping. All the key presidents and prime ministers from across the region were there. They had to come up with a united response to yet another crisis somewhere in Africa. Journalists had been waiting since morning for the press conference. An agitated radio reporter had to dash off mid-afternoon to pick up her son from school, praying that the press conference would not take place while she was away. She got back just in time and the boy was sitting at her side when the leaders walked in, Mandela in his trademark “Madiba shirt”, the others in formal suits.

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