An Optimist & a Skeptic: Celebrate Mandela & Thackeray

MONDAY, JULY 18: Take your pick or celebrate both birthdays! Nelson Mandela turns 93 today (so this is the official UN-sponsored Mandela Day). And, William Makepeace Thackery, the acid-penned author of the original Vanity Fair, would be 200 today.

Nelson Mandela turns 93 with a record-setting song!

In South Africa, 12 million school children are singing Happy Birthday to Mandela, better known as “Madiba” in his homeland, according to the South Africa Times newspaper. Coordinated by South Africa’s education ministry, the Times reports that this is “the world’s greatest ever number of people simultaneously wishing one person happy birthday, and could achieve Guinness Book of Records recognition.” Here in the United States, President Obama marked the day by declaring Mandela “a beacon for the global community, and for all who work for democracy, justice and reconciliation,” according to the Washington Post.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winner is celebrated around the world for his courage and commitment to peace. Mandela is famous for optimistic advice such as: “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.” And, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” And: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

Care to read more? The Mandela Foundation website offers lots of newsy information, including photos of Mandela on the eve of his 93rd birthday.

William Makepeace Thackeray and his razor wit turn 200

Thanks to director Mira Nair and actress Reese Witherspoon, many young moviegoers have experienced Thackeray’s masterpiece Vanity Fair, which now is available on DVD. The convergence of birthdays with Nelson Mandela, of course, is pure coincidence. The legacies of the two men appear to be at opposite ends of the rhetorical spectrum: Mandela a relentlessly honest optimist and Thackeray a satyrist who was famous for lampooning everything and everyone in British society.

Thackeray is famous for writing lines such as: “Stupid people, people who do not know how to laugh, are always pompous and self-conceited.” And: “If a man’s character is to be abused, say what you will, there’s nobody like a relation to do the business.”

But perhaps the two men weren’t as different as they seem. A story from Brigham Young University, where the library is hosting a Thackery birthday exhibit, calls the novelist “an optimist.” Beneath his scourging wit, much like his sometime friend Charles Dickens, Thackery did promote the idea that men and women could rise above the station in which society had first placed them. In Barry Lyndon, which was brought to the screen by Stanley Kubrick, Thackeray wrote: “Let the man who has to make his fortune in life remember this maxim. Attacking is his only secret. Dare, and the world always yields: or, if it beat you sometimes, dare again, and it will succumb.”

Happy birthday to both great men!

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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