Last Friday, July 17, brought the loss of two inspiring giants in the world of social justice change-making, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis.
I have been thinking about Vivian and Lewis all week and pondering what kept each of them going in some very hard times. Their work in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement brought great personal danger and injury, and they endured years of pain as very public African American leaders. Yet each retained a forward sense of possibility, a long-term view with vigor and hope.
There is much to take in right now—the steep rise in U.S. coronavirus cases, the ominous and unaccountable Homeland Security troops in Portland and more coming, the ongoing ambiguity of school and work decisions yet to be sorted fully. The accumulation of so much anxiety, grief, and anger. If would be quite natural for any us to tip over into a pool of despair and feel very low indeed. I feel waves of this repeatedly, and actively seek ways to move forward in this passage that veers towards chaos.
How do we sit with what is real, and yet not absolutely drown in the pain of despair? This statement from Rev. Vivian, on the core staff team with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., caught my eye: “You are made by the struggles you choose.” There is a wide range of responses available when despair comes in, with all its heavy weight and suffocating sorrow.
Rep. Lewis was widely quoted last week from a time in April 2017 when he urged Americans to stay steady and keep up action. Early stages of the Trump administration were already bringing a series of moves that truly alarmed many. Lewis said back then: “Some people are saying, you know, ‘I’m a little nervous. I don’t know what to do.’ But we’re saying: Don’t be nervous. Don’t get lost in a sea of despair. Keep the faith, get up, get out there, be bold, be courageous, and do a job and do it well.”
A reading I heard this week provides another take on how to move the painful weight of despair. The antidote suggested here, gratitude, does not mean a simple or shallow refusal to reckon with reality. This is Shams of Tabriz speaking, the teacher of Rumi, and both encountered the full range of human experience and social constructs. Deeper gratitude might come from the realization of human complexity, the knowledge that good things happen while very difficult things are going on. The way we respond involves a wide range of choices.
Hope that you each find moments of beauty and joy to celebrate this week, while we all wrestle with the intense challenges emerging still.
By Shams of Tabriz
Whatever happens to you…
Don’t fall in despair,
Even if all the doors are closed…
A secret path will be there for you that no one knows,
You can’t see it yet…
But so many paradises are at the end of this path,
Be grateful…It is easy to thank after obtaining what you want…
Thank before having what you want.
Yes, John Lewis and C. T. Vivian were heroes who dared to put their bodies on the line in the non-violent battle for voting and others against the fascists and murderers who controlled the lives of people in the Deep South in the 60s and before. Fortunately, they survived until just now. Other brave heroes (and there were many) like Martin Luther KIng, Jr., Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, Viola Liuzzo and Jim Reeb were murdered for their efforts. When it becomes possible for the new Voting Rights Act to be enacted, John Lewis deserves to have it bear his name.