The future of our world arrived out of nowhere on the back of a once-in-a-century pandemic. To say the corona virus has had an slight impact on the way the world “works” would be an understatement. It’s fair to say that most are trying to make the best of it, to survive in the best way they can with what they have. There’s no right way to manage isolation because human beings have evolved to take comfort in one another’s presence, so when we’re isolated, it effects us on a physiological level. More often than not, distress also distorts our view of others in our lives who seem to be doing so well, which is why we cant compare our progress with theirs. Some of us simply aren’t geared to pivot our lifestyle so drastically while staying productive.

Our Greatest President

Balancing realism and optimism is essential to navigating challenging times and as we continue the Covid-19 lockdown, these compelling insights foster our inner resilience and hope. More so when we understand those who faced this before us. So how can we learn from those who have coped in true isolation by looking at our own history? We thought it only fair to remind everyone of one of the greatest survivors of isolation in our very own home land – Nelson Mandela.

As we acknowledge the strength and the resilience of our past president, its important to consider the great hardship that he went through. Mandela was jailed for 27 years for his activism against apartheid in South Africa emerging in 1990 to become the country’s first black president four years later and to play a leading role in the drive for peace in other spheres of conflict. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. He has become one of the greatest symbols of strength and defiance. We’ll look at some of the ways he handles his repression, and perhaps how we can use this to guide ourselves. However there’s no intention of demeaning his struggle by attempting to compare it to our current situation. While it is greatly inappropriate to compare the privileged experience of social isolation with a grueling prison sentence, we only hope to draw inspiration from one of our greatest leaders.

Life in Prison

Mandela spent nearly 10,000 days of confinement and punishment in South Africa’s prisons, locked in a cell so tiny his head touched one wall and his feet the other when he slept. He found ample room to praise his monk-like isolation in 1975, calling it “an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings.” The deprivation, he once said “gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you.” Yet this overlooks the fact that loneliness is not a universal human condition, but rather points out that it is a historically specific one.

Life on Robben Island was very harsh, especially for political prisoners. Mandela was classified as the lowest grade of inmate, Class D. This meant he received the least privileges, the hardest punishments and the worst living conditions. He was permitted just one letter and one visit every six months. His cell had no plumbing, his toilet was a bucket and his bed a straw mat. He was provided with no pyjamas to keep him warm as he slept on the cold damp floor, a privilege that was provided to white prisoners – isolation its its worst form.

Never giving up on the power of Education

Although he was allowed to read, newspapers were banned and when he was caught reading one that had been smuggled in, he soon found himself sent to solitary confinement. ‘In those early years, isolation became a habit. We were routinely charged for the smallest infractions and sentenced to isolation,’ Mandela wrote in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. ‘I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there is only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks’. Mandela turned to literature and initiated lectures with his comrades, effectively creating a ‘university behind bars’. Through a correspondence course from the University of London, he worked on a Bachelor of Laws degree during the night. He even learnt Afrikaans, the language of his oppressors, and encouraged his comrades to do so as well.

What can we learn from this?

It’s never too late to learn and that lifelong learning is a characteristic of great people. Mandela was passionate about the law and found success no matter how long it took him. Even when it could have been the furthest thing from his mind, he worked to sharpen his mind and hone his passions. More than that, he was clearly undeterred by his early struggles academically. Finally, it’s important that we learn from his desire to share learning. When we teach others and let others teach us what they know, knowledge is shared. Mandela was keenly aware of this. Perhaps when you’re using time in isolation to strengthen your knowledge, create an exchange of learning with your family and friends and even colleagues.

Mandela never stop Exercising

In his early days were spent breaking rocks with a hammer before being reassigned to digging in a blindingly bright lime quarry. Mandela didn’t let anything get in the way of his exercise regime. He began at 5am and attempted to follow his old boxing routine of doing roadwork and muscle-building. Firstly he would start with running on the spot for 45 minutes, followed by 100 fingertip push-ups, 200 sit-ups, 50 deep knee-bends and calisthenic exercises learnt from his gym training Mandela would do this Mondays to Thursdays, and then rest for three days. This continued even during his several spells in solitary confinement.

What can we learn from this

Although we aren’t suggesting to start implementing a rigorous exercising regime, however Mandela mentioned that he was able to unleash his anger and frustration on a punchbag rather than taking it out on a comrade or even a policeman. Should you start knocking out 100 press-ups per day? No. However, it might be more productive to figure out what are the best conditions for your own productivity and mental well-being, which exercise could help with. Studies have shown that exercise has improved not only physical well-being but mental health as well.

Leaving Isolation Stronger

With resilience, perseverance and self-care this isolation doesn’t have to be a road-block, but an opportunity to build upon your own strengths. By constantly seeking to develop, innovate, and collaborate you’ll find yourself able to come out of uncertain and challenging situations better than if you remain static.