My Lesson from Nelson Mandela – (translated into Perception Language)


I make choices — I adopt beliefs — and I alter the trajectory of my life.

Some of my choices have long-lasting consequences for me. One of my choices has to do with whether I frame myself in a binary way, such as “me vs. them,” or whether I frame myself based on my notion that “we are all in this together.”

Do I identify myself as being alone, or together with others and myself?

I explore this question as I read “My Promised Land” by Ari Shavit. I have this book be beautifully written, and it tells me of the triumph and tragedy of Israel. Shavit’s great-grandfather first visited Israel in 1897 and he was one of the founders of Zionism, which supports Jews in maintaining their Jewish identity and creating a Jewish homeland.

As Shavit revisits Israel’s infancy, he tells of the early decades of the 1920’s and 30s which were exceptionally good for the Jews of Palestine. The economy was booming and the culture was blooming. As Shavit writes, “Their life experience is that of an astounding collective success, based on self-reliance and innovation.”

But, then things change as a result of a civil war from 1936–39. The Jewish leadership and Jewish community as a whole adopted the belief: “us or them, life or death.” Innocence was replaced with innocent victims — Jews killing Arabs and Arabs killing Jews. As a result of adopting an “us or them” perspective, the Jews in Israel have lived embattled ever since.

Choosing my survival, but at what price for me?

It is possible that if I hadn’t adopted a “me vs. them” perspective I may not have survived? But, paradoxically, as a result of me adopting such a perspective I assure myself of a life of continual conflict and anxiety about my survival.

An alternative approach for me can be seen in the actions of the Nelson Mandela who chooses not “us or them,” but “all of us together.” With this model in mind I insist that domination — white over black or black over white — is not an option for me. How do I arrive at such an enlightened stance?

I say that it is because I embody a remarkable capacity for forgiveness. Actually, I do not believe I am choosing forgiveness, but pragmatism. I choose the path that promises my greatest hope — not just for myself, but for all people.

27 years in prison

Although I anger myself when I imprison myself, I mature myself, and by the time I release myself from my prison I am able to see my long view, which I have be a characteristic of my maturity. I know that a “me vs. them” stance results in my retaliation and my endless struggle.

Instead of “me vs. them” I elevate my conversation and promote my understanding that differences between myself and others and within myself, do exist, and only by respecting my differences, not resenting them, do I find my peace and my eventual prosperity.

My history plays out for my generations to come. I have my choice of “me vs. them” look ominous to me. I have my choice of “all of us together” look auspicious to me.

Do I imprison myself?

I make a similar choice in my own life, in my marriage, and in my other important relationships. I can see the world through an “us or them” filter and therefore stimulate my fear, my defensiveness, my aggression, and my alienation. Or, I can see my world through an “all of us together” filter, thus stimulating my understanding, my cooperation, my openness, and my connection.

Where does my “me vs. them” perspective come from?

I believe it comes from my most primitive parts of my brain, my survival circuits. When I feel threatened, I reach for the only tools my primitive brain knows: fighting,  fleeing, or  freezing. I may think I don’t do these things, but when I insist I am right and I make other people wrong —that’s my fighting circuitry. When I walk out of a room in the middle of a conversation, or when I simply stop listening — that’s my fleeing circuitry. When I paralyze myself, I stop expressing my true feelings or I have myself go into my confusion— that’s my freezing circuity.

Us or them. Good or bad. Right or wrong. Black or white. All of these overly simplistic distinctions are ways that I stimulate my fear centers in my brain.

But I have a choice. I give myself a choice. I have myself choose.

If I learn to make finer and finer distinctions in myself, which I have be a sign of my greater intelligence, I activate my more advanced parts of my brain. This is precisely what happens in me when I learn to use Perception Language. I slow myself down. I have myself become more deliberate. I see that every one of my situations is comprised of my multiple perspectives — as many perspectives as there are parts-of-me. I stop telling other people about them. I stop trying to control other people.

I have myself become more vulnerable and in doing so I connect more deeply with other people and with myself. I recognize my differences while feeling my similarities.

This is the choice that I have made.

And I advocate that Jews make a similar choice. Mandela once remark, “I know too well that my freedom will be incomplete without the freedom of others.” Because of his statement I acknowledge that the formal recognition of the other person is an essential ingredient for my peaceful co-existence with them and with the them-in-me.

Some people have referred to Madiba’s philosophy as the philosophy of “yes.” I encourage myself to bring his philosophy of “yes” into my life and my relationships. When I make myself tense, I always ask myself the question, “What can I say ‘yes’ to?” I always revert to my simple questions when I experience tension in myself. I ask,

Am I friends with myself?

Do I love myself?

Do I want to reconnect with myself?

Because I answer my questions with a resounding “yes,” I re-establish a loving connection with myself. I have this work for me every time.

And, if my philosophy of “yes” seems a bit too vague — I recommend practicing three communication skills which lead me to greater understanding of myself:

1. When I tense myself in my relationship with myself, and I need to clear my air, I ask my questions listed above. If I don’t choose to reconnect with myself, I postpone having a conversation until I do desire to reconnect with myself.

2. I restrict my conversation to talking about what is happening to me right now.

How do I have myself feel right now?
What do I want from myself right now?
What am I asking myself to consider right now?

I don’t talk about historical matters, like who said what or who did what when. I just accept that I have a different experience of what is happening in me.

3. I take responsibility for what I feel.

Instead of saying, “You make me angry,” I say, “I’m angering myself.”
Instead of saying, “You embarrassed me,” I say “I embarrass myself.”

This way I choose to use language — verbing myself — was written about in a previous elephant journal article, Changing Our Language Can Change Our Lives.

And, finally, if I have myself choose to see my world in black and white terms, and I choose to think I am right by making other people wrong, and I have myself not deeply care about how I feel — then I may not be able to raise myself above my severe limitations and practice a different approach for myself.

I may choose to remove myself from these parts-of-me — even if I have them be familial in myself.

I have myself Choose Yes.


(The original version of this article was published in elephant journal. That version can also be on our website by clicking here. I strongly encourage you to open both versions—in two different browser windows—so that you can compare them side by side.)

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