On Being Young When Mandela Died

By Michaela Dwyer

Last week, Nelson Mandela died, and as is custom, social media responded. There were earnest, admiring tweets praising Mandela’s “heroic” status; there were Facebook posts by friends who know much more about South Africa than I, decrying the former sentimentalizing tendency and calling out Mandela’s activist grain. And, adding to the long list of famous people helping to shape our still-nascent understanding of social media etiquette, there was Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke, who took it upon herself to “announce” the South African leader’s death via promoting the new Mandela biopic.

I often find it difficult to cut through this wash of public statements and find something that feels meaningful to me. (I admit—this may be due to my hyperactive follow-anyone-or-anything-that-sparks-my-interest Twitter philosophy). But this time, I noticed one of my friends had tweeted a pair of statements on Mandela’s death in relation to being young—and, specifically, being a few months out of college like me. “Strange to think someone can spend more years than I’ve been alive in prison and live such a full and accomplished life,” he wrote. Minutes later: “Says something about just how long life is, compared to the way I as a ’20-something’ sometimes see it, as short and almost nearly over.”

Emerging from a need to answer this question myself, I’ve lately I’ve been asking people, older and younger, about whether or not every decision they made or are making in their 20s feels/felt like life or death. (Should I stay or should I go? How much does geographic place contribute to my happiness? Will community ever feel as natural and readymade as it did in college? Am I able to create a Great Artistic Work, and why haven’t I made one yet?). Based on my informal surveying, older folks say no, choices and decisions at this age did not feel so high-stakes. Younger (read: my age, 22, give or take a few years) folks say yes. Why? Among my peers, the consensus seems to be that we “attach meaning to everything.” Or, perhaps, we sometimes confuse the emotional resonance of a moment with our composite felt experience—our grand narrative, Facebook timeline’d or not. I’m guilty of this: if something rubs me the wrong way, it destabilizes the confidence I’ve attempted to construct for my present life (read: “everything is falling apart!”). In “Ribs,” 17-year-old Lorde sings, “This dream isn’t feeling sweet/ We’re reeling through the midnight streets/ And I’ve never felt more alone/ It feels so scary, getting old.” Ironic, maybe. But whether I sit in my living room with friends and ponder, with eyes cast down, this music as it plays, or walk with headphones in, decidedly alone, I mourn my vanishing age with a mounting self-awareness that bites just as hard: life can be long. We are maturing all the time. Meaning, purpose, and accomplishment develop in the long-term. This is the chorus of those older than I.


Mandela didn’t choose to go to prison, but he chose, in tandem with others, to begin Umkhonto we Sizwe en contra to the existing apartheid government. In the New Yorker this week, Amy Davidson writes that half a century ago, “when [Mandela] was convicted on the capital charge of sabotage, he told the judge that he was ready to die for his ideals.” And when he left prison after 27 years, he chose to remain devoted to abolishing apartheid, and was eventually elected president. These choices are not disconnected; if anything, Mandela’s “full and accomplished life” may be best understood on a continuum of conscientious decisions, seemingly all directed, even in his preparedness for death, toward life, and life, and more life. A more equitable life for more people. More people having more access to the various types of decisions that can give life meaning.

The New York Times appears to currently monopolize the landscape of widely-read essays and columns regarding twenty-somethings, a.k.a. “millennials” (a.k.a. 18-to-33-year-olds, as I recently learned while posing for a group photo of millennials working at Duke). These pieces are often alluring in their thoughtful, universalizing tone, in their ability to take a somewhat specific issue and broaden it just enough to garner a hearty amount of “likes” from a heterogeneous swath of Facebook friends. A few days before Mandela’s death, I saw friends rejoice when this ostensibly cheery article was published, about our generation supposedly being more likely to seek out (non-material) “meaning” over (material) “happiness.” The article concludes as follows: “Of course, nobody likes living through tough economic times — and the millennials have been dealt a tough hand. But at the same time, there are certain benefits to economic deprivation. Millennials have been forced to reconsider what a successful life constitutes.”

This summary leaves a particularly bad taste in my mouth as I think of a handful of incredibly intelligent, creatively driven friends who are struggling to pay bills each month—all considering equally what it means to live a meaningful life, all conscious, if not fearful, of “getting old.” And by extension I think of the populations articles like this one often systematically exclude: those who—what a thought!—have never been a part of the financially privileged sect who can say that they “don’t like living through tough economic times”—and who, in turn, feel and live the effects of these “tough times” more extremely. These words smack with the same condescension of Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay’s recent report about how it’s sometimes more aesthetically pleasing to view dance from the “nosebleed” seats. Never mind the many folks, especially young folks, who would love to see dance, or any kind of art or cultural activity (and see it well), in a place like New York City, but simply cannot afford anything better than those distant seats.

So how do we, then, create meaning? Maybe we’re only getting farther away from the answers each time we beg the question, whether in a mainstream media think-piece, a Kenan Insider think piece, or in endless agony-driven conversations with friends. I’m reminded of an Edith Wharton quote my mom shared with me a long time ago: “If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.” This philosophy extends, I think, beyond happiness—and as far as discerning the difference between happiness and meaning, I guarantee there are umpteen other articles just waiting for our tech-addled minds (and typing fingers). There are circumstances that press us to make decisions that feel more consequential than others, and these are circumstances, and decisions, that seem to transcend meaning-making. It hardly seems possible to envision Mandela as armchair philosopher, generating “what will give my life meaning?” sticky-notes as he plotted to bring down the government, via both peaceful and non-peaceful means. (Though maybe he did; we may never know). I think what we, or I, thousands of miles and experiences away, admire most about Mandela is the way in which he lived his beliefs—to the point at which “beliefs” and “life” collapse into one charged embodiment. I have to wonder if this way of being might make getting old feel less scary.