What does working in retail, working at Walmart, or Target, or in a service industry like Jiffy Lube for automobiles have to do with Nelson Mandela? A whole lot more than you might expect, if you ask me.

The privileged in the world continue to look down upon the less fortunate, pity the have-nots with a self-satisfied sneer on their faces, hidden behind a crooked half frown. I was at Walmart today, and witnessed as those in their Sunday-best carefully wheeled their carts around anyone who may not be able to afford Chivas Regal, avoiding those who might not have room in their studio apt to blow up a Balance exercise ball or put together the latest Suzanne Somer’s contraption.

I cringe as I watch those who were born on third base who then thought they had somehow hit a home run in the baseball game we call life. I myself have worked several retail jobs, starting with the official title of Plant Helper at General Mills, working the line while paying my way through college at St. John’s University. And as much as I have tried to distance myself from my past, my past nevertheless informs who I have become, and I am grateful for the ability to understand that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

As I was Christmas shopping for my nephews today, I ran across the new Malcolm Gladwell book, David and Goliath, subtitled, “Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants.” Page six of this reflective tome extemporizes his theme when he states, “Much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”

Nelson Mandela might very well have been a mere footnote in history, not remembered or eulogized by presidents. His fate, in many ways, turned on a dime (forgive the cliches). The African National Congress, the ANC, was established in 1923, then in a white backlash, the National Party, NP, was set up in 1940 and created the term Apartheid, meaning “apartness” in Afrikaans, the official language of the South African people. Nelson Mandela was jailed in August 1962 for supposedly inciting workers to strike, a right we Americans take for granted. Initially sentenced to five years, he was retried two years later, and given a life sentence. Something was indeed “rotten in the state of Denmark” (to quote Shakespeare). The story might very well have ended there.

Steven Biko, another protestor, was beaten to death in his jail cell, and most Americans, or indeed citizens of the world, have never heard of him, but through the efforts of many, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu (a black religious man), and the pressure put on white South African president F.W. de Klerk, Mandela was freed February 11, 1990 after 27 years in prison and became president of South Africa, May 10, 1994.

Following the news coverage the past two days, Americans could very well have drawn the conclusion that Mandela, like Gandhi, achieved a level of unsurpassed greatness simply by an indomitable will, but in this case it took a village, dare I say a nation, to bring about change and social justice.

Mandela left us with an important thought to live by: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

This holiday season I suggest we focus more on what brings us together, what unites us, rather than what keeps us separate.