Let It Go: An Important Lesson from Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela

Charlene Smith compares how leaders Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela overcame hardships and achieved success.

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“Mandela said, ‘Yes, I did a little bit.’ Then he said, ‘As I felt the anger rising up, I thought to myself, `They have already had you for 27 years. And if you keep hating them, they'll have you again.' And I said, `I want to be free. And so I let it go. I let it go.’”

I let it go. How many of us do that with our own resentments and anger? How many of us realize that when we hold onto hate we make the person who harmed us eternally powerful? The Queen had to learn to let it go too. Her husband’s uncle, and the favorite great-uncle of her son Charles, was The Earl of Mountbatten. He was on a quiet fishing trip in Ireland in 1979 when the Irish Republican Army blew him up.  Neither the Queen, nor her husband, nor her son, have ever said anything against the Irish, and when the time came her government gave those who fought for greater independence from England, what they desired.

She did not always approve of her daughter-in-law, Princess Diana. But when Princess Diana was tragically killed in a car accident in Paris, the queen first saw to her grieving grandsons, and then she spoke to the British people acknowledging their love of Diana and her tragic death. She has shown deep respect to the memory of Diana, the mother of her grandsons.

The lessons of the Queen and Mandela are important because they teach us that life is made of many difficulties; we will probably get criticized, and we may even make dangerous enemies. But how we deal with those challenges determines how happy the rest of our life will be. And as Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela show, life can be very long. 

But life can also surprise us with great happiness just when we thought it was too late for that to happen: Nelson Mandela was 71 when he walked out of prison, 75 when he became the first president of a democratic South Africa, and 80 when he married Graca Machel. He now enjoys what he says is, “the greatest love and happiness” of his life.  But if he’d held on to old resentments, his heart would not have been open to allow love in.

It’s never too late to let go. It is never too late to start again. We’ve all said about someone remarkable, like a Mandela, or someone who handles personal tragedy with grace: ‘I never could be that strong.” They never thought they could be that strong either, until they had to.

Charlene Smith is an award-winning journalist and an authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela. She lives and works in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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