Imagining Nelson Mandela's "dash"

Posted on December 08,2013 by aliatmspp

Linda Ellis wrote a poem entitled, “The Dash,” about the dash that stands between the date a person was a born and the day the person dies as a symbol for the life and legacy of that person. I first became aware of “The Dash” at a memorial service I attended last month and found it to be a paltry visual representation of one’s existence. However, after further consideration, I began to think more about the dash, the symbol of a life lived, as one that could vary in length, design, or color. In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing this week, I thought again of the poem’s message, “What matters is how we live and love/and how we spend our dash,” (Ellis, 1996) as a way to remind us that we have the power essentially to draft our own eulogies in what it is that we do with our lives.

Without a doubt, Mandela’s dash can be imagined as a bold one, perhaps in larger font than the text itself to indicate the evolution of “terrorist” to empathic leader. I came across an article that suggested that Mandela and a handful of other inspirational leaders are to be admired not simply for their fine accomplishments, but more for that fact that they appear to have achieved a level self-actualization that many strive to attain. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is topped by self-actualization, which is the apex of a human’s psychological life. Though there are many schools of therapeutic approaches, most of them share this state of self-awareness and the maximization of one's fullest potential as the end goal.

Surely we will remember Mandela as a resilient optimist, a gracious forgiver, a creative problem solver, and a fearless advocate. The spin on characterizing Mandela as self-actualized also seems fitting; here was a man who demonstrated the most delicate act of forgiveness following a period of violence and uprising.

How will you remember Mandela? Alternatively, how would you want your dash imagined?

Below is a link to “The Dash” poem and two links regarding Mandela’s “dash” – just a few of the many lessons we can learn from his lifetime.

The Dash Poem:


Chambers, C. (2013) Was Nelson Mandela the pinnacle of human psychology? The Guardian. Retrieved from: