Fifty years later. Are we better or worse off?

In the final two months of 2013, we’ve seen two major stories play over and over in the media—both chronicles of major world leaders and their impacts on our world.

November 22 marked the 50-year anniversary of JFK’s assassination, and on December 5, only 13 days later, Nelson Mandela succumbed to a respiratory infection. Every network and cable station has aired specials on the lives and deaths of both men.

But history had already intertwined the destinies of these men. Only a few months after the life of John Kennedy was snuffed out in the fall of 1963, so too was Nelson Mandela’s—or so Mandela’s sentencer thought. In early 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The destinies of both men were, apparently, extinguished forever.

But that was not to be.

The spirit of Kennedy has lived on. Like no president since him, and perhaps no president before him, he has been immortalized. Mandela, against all imaginable possibilities, became president of South Africa after serving 27 years of his prison sentence and being freed.

The legacies of both men have been bigger than the men themselves. Both men were driven by their convictions to better humankind and to change the world in which they lived. They fought against oppression of any and for freedom of all.

Kennedy’s mandate for equal rights became law and forever changed the social structure of the United States. He pointed his finger at the eye of communism, setting a world stage that forced the eventual fall of it two decades later. And in the case of Mandela—while in prison, his legend and podium only grew. He was the guiding figure of freedom for the native people of South Africa. They rallied behind him. Motivated by his perseverance, they forced the minority ruling whites to free Mandela, to end apartheid, to allow true democracy, to pass laws of equality for all and to ensure free voting. In the ultimate irony, the South Africans celebrated Mandela and elected him their first black president.

Perhaps the tragedies of both men served their destinies well.

Regardless of how you view the world around you, whether you believe it to better or worse, regardless of your individual right to view your glass as half empty or half full, there is no question that these two men made your world a better place to live in—a much better place. We owe them a never-ending thank you.

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