Clint Eastwood's movie "Invictus" has given Nelson Mandela another turn as an icon. Few souls on the planet are as deserving of the acclaim.
The South African leader's wisdom and insistence on reconciliation kept his nation from descending into racial warfare after its bizarre and brutal white-minority rule ended in the early 1990s. His political theories should be required reading for all of our bickering politicians.
But Mandela's life story holds inspiration for everyone. If you're still making New Year's resolutions, resolve to find a copy of his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom." It's a history lesson, a political treatise and a primer on turning adversity into opportunity.
Mandela was imprisoned for nearly 27 years for activities aimed at overturning apartheid. His response was not despair or bitterness but what Andre Brink, a South African professor, described as "a creative denial of victimhood."
In prison, Mandela was a leader, a scholar, a political scientist, a thesbian, a gardener and a fitness enthusiast.
From his memoir: On Monday through Thursday, I would do stationary running in my cell in the morning for up to forty-five minutes. I would also perform one hundred fingertip push-ups, two hundred sit-ups, fifty deep knee-bends and various other calisthenics.
In South Africa's Robben Island prison, Mandela and other political prisoners were marched most days to mine lime from a quarry with shovels and picks. Remarkably, they used the work detail to form a "university," in which men shared their expertise in politics, history, economics and philosophy.
Study groups would work together on the quarry and station themselves in a circle around the leader of the seminar. The style of teaching was Socratic in nature; ideas and theories were elucidated through the leaders asking and answering questions.
In two of the three prisons at which he was incarcerated, Mandela convinced wardens to allow him to cultivate vegetable gardens.
A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. In some ways, I saw the garden as a metaphor for certain aspects of my life. Like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved, and eliminate what cannot succeed.
In 1985, Mandela was dismayed to be placed in isolation, separated from the colleagues with whom he'd been imprisoned for decades.
As with everything, he sought to turn adversity into opportunity. South Africa's apartheid regime was straining from international censure and internal strife. It was time to start talking to the enemy, Mandela decided.
My solitude would give me an opportunity to take the first steps in that direction, without the kind of scrutiny that might destroy such efforts.
The talks Mandela initiated led to his release, freedom for his colleagues, a relatively bloodless transition from apartheid to democracy and Mandela's election as president. And, yes, respect for the Springbok rugby squad.
Today, at age 92, Mandela lives in a South Africa plagued with high crime and unemployment and a host of other problems. But, because of him, it is far ahead of African nations in which independence movements were marred by violence and civil war.
When Mandela published "Long Walk to Freedom" in 1994, a Boston Globe reviewer wrote that the memoir "should be read by every person alive."
Or at least by every person who cherishes wisdom and believes that dignity and determination can always lead to a better day.
In Mandela's words: I am fundamentally an optimist. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward.
There is no better message with which to start a new year.