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  • Anu Senan

Surviving a lock down - lessons from Nelson Mandela


Last week marked the 102nd birthday of Nelson Mandela. If he were around, how would he have handled the lock down?


The other day I was talking to my aunt, who lives in Kerala, India. Her town has been declared a containment zone due to the rising number of COVID cases. She is a retired school principal and the lock down is affecting her life. ‘I think we will go through a depression’, she says. She is speaking of mental depression. I think about it. If she, who is in fairly good shape, has a family to give her company and is well read, feels this way then what about those who live alone, are old and frail and are probably influenced by media reports?

It’s understandable, when things are thrown off balance, people feel helpless and lost.

What can you do to stave off these feelings especially when the external world is not necessarily projecting a positive image and social media amplifies it?


I, would look to Mandela.


He spent 27 years in prison fighting for his ideals. He did not give up. In fact, he emerged stronger.


18 years out of the 27 were spent on Robben Island – in a 7 feet by 8 feet cell. Mandela was 6 feet 1 inch tall. All he had was a cot and a bucket for a toilet. They could have broken his spirit but he held steadfast.


Here are three lessons we can take away from what Mandela did to survive and thrive under lock down:


Time bound goals:

He studied law as a University of London student through distance learning during his time in prison. This is no easy task. Considering that the books he needed to study had to be sent from the South African Library to the remote Robben Island. On many occasions, the books arrived at the prison past their due date of return. The jail wardens would sent them back. Nelson Mandela never even got to see them.

Despite the hardships, he persisted. Here's what he said:

But I had continued my studies throughout the trial and I wanted to take the examination. I was single-minded about it, and I later realized that it was a way to keep myself from thinking negatively.’


Having time bound goals that improve your life –be it health, income, relationships or career goals – have the power to elevate your mental state. Having the determination to achieve such goals will give you focus and drive.


Power of positive habits to build routine

Habits have the power to give you a sense of balance. We often look to our external world for stability and routine. Having a 9-5 job, 5 days a week helps you build your life around it. Having children in school allows parents to plan their days around their children’s schedule. What happens when work and schooling become remote. And all at once, you are the teacher, the office colleague, the spouse, the chef and the cleaner? Chaos and pandemonium set in! Now, not only have your roles merged, you have also lost your routine.


How many parents agree that it’s been frustrating and an uphill climb during the lock down managing all these roles at once?


When the external world ceased to function the way it did, many people lost their anchor. They were adrift and that sense of helplessness became stronger. Listen to what Mandela said about prison life:


"Prison life is about routine: each day like the one before; each week like the one before it, so that the months and years blend into each other," Mr Mandela wrote.

Can you relate to that?


Mandela, loved boxing. He attempted to follow his old boxing habits of doing roadwork, and muscle building, from Monday through Thursday and then resting for the next three days. He would do stationary running in his cell for 45 minutes, 100 fingertip pushups , two hundred situps, fifty deep knee-bends and various calisthenics.



Remember this was a man, who lost both his mother and his oldest son while in prison. He was not allowed to attend either funeral. Not allowed to grieve properly. It’s easy to lose one’s mind at such times. But not Mandela. Here is what he had to say about exercising as a habit:

'Exercise is a key not only to physical health but to peace of mind. Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity.'


Pick positive habits in any realm of life – exercise, art, cooking, meditation, mindfulness, reading. You choose. Build positive habits that elevate your mood. Do them at the same time every day until it becomes second nature. See how those habits have the power to transform your life. They help build consistency and routines into your daily life. You will no longer depend on external circumstances to define your day.

Forgive and Let go

Lastly, Nelson Mandela learned to forgive and let go.

How many of us have asked at least once, why is this happening? How many of us have complained about it? And the lack of political leadership?

Nelson Mandela could have complained too. And no body would have blamed him.

Instead, he understood the power of letting go and forgiving. In fact forgiveness is key to moving forward. Mandela chose not to be a victim of his circumstances. When he was released from prison, there was a brief moment when he felt very angry. About the fact that they robbed 27 years of his life. But in a flash, he replaced that thought with a different one: 'Now that I am free, I should not be a prisoner to my thoughts.'

See, we are all free to take a stand. You can choose not to be a victim of your circumstances. You can choose to rise above it. Remember, in any situation, where you seemingly have no control, you can do three things:

1) It is what it is. Accept it. You cannot change it. It will either control you or, you will control it.

Remember, resistance is useless. The faster you can accept the facts, the easier it becomes for you to ground yourself.

2) Harvest the Good. The more you look for it, the more you'll find.

Look at the lockdown as an opportunity to learn, to reconnect with self, to slow down, to reflect and maybe even rethink business strategies during this lock down.

3) Forgive all the rest. To forgive means to let go of completely, abandon.

If you change your perception of the situation, if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change. When Mandela was in prison, he learned Afrikaans, the language of his oppressors. And when he was released, he worked with his oppressors, not against them, but with them to bring about positive change. For this he and his former adversary, FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last Apartheid leader were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The two leaders were a symbol of collaboration and compromise for bringing a peaceful termination to Apartheid.

Nelson Mandela had time bound goals, he used the power of positive habits to build routines and forgiveness to let go of his past as he embraced a new future. Remember he achieved all this, while doing back breaking manual labor. He used to work in a limestone quarry under a searing sun all day. He wrote his autobiography during his prison time. He carried on secret conversations with allies outside the prison on liberating S.A. He did all this and more while the world had no clue what he looked like. For 27 years not a single picture of the world’s most famous prisoner was released to the world. He was completely kept in the dark.

Imagine the lock down he went through.

If he could emerge stronger using sheer will power and mental focus, so can we. It takes fortitude, resilience and the willpower to overcome our circumstances.


I would like to leave you with these lines from the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley. This was one of Mandela’s favorite poems and he loved to recite these lines to fellow inmates:

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

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