All we face now can feel overwhelming. It’s as if everywhere you turn, there is another challenge and another threat. And yet, even if the midst of all that is wrong, there are opportunities to shine the light, to be a voice for good, and to support others. Yes, it looks bleak now, but we are still here to do some good:
“Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure. In all great adventures there comes a time when the little band of heroes feels totally outnumbered and bleak, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. You learn to say ‘It looks bleak. Big deal, it looks bleak.’” — Joanna Macy
Sometimes everything comes down to how we see a situation. Will we get irritated by something or consider it an opportunity to build community? Often children with their winsome ways and guilelessness cause us to adapt. Take a moment to watch this life-affirming story about a man who took an unusual approach to a child riding a bike in his driveway. What a beautiful neighborhood they are creating together!
John Lewis was an American hero. His whole life was a testament to fighting the good fight and trying to make the world a better, more egalitarian place even in the most dire of circumstances. Today, he is laid to rest, but he left us words, every one ringing with truth, to give us light and help us find our way without him:
“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.
“That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.
“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.
“Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.
“Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.
“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, though decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
May his words hold true in our hearts, and let us live up to the example he set. Let us go forward in the spirit of peace with everlasting love as our guide. Let this be our solemn vow. Now is the time.
Most of us will not be inventing a vaccine to end this pandemic or donating millions to the research. Most of us will not be heroes in the saving the day sense.
And yet each of us has incredible power to choose how we want to meet each day when life is so stressful. Whether we want to retreat into a cocoon focused only on our own wants and needs or use this as an opportunity to reach out to others. Whether we want to add to someone’s anxiety or be their shelter in the storm. Whether we want to be comforted or to comfort.
And the impetus for any acts of kindness comes from the deep recognition of how important those acts of kindness have been to you when you have despaired. The kind gesture, the comfort of a friend simply abiding with you as you travel a dark path, the reminder that you are precious when you’ve forgotten and can see only your mistakes. These have been your lifeblood. And you can offer that gift to others, particularly now. Take a moment to enjoy this profound poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
There is an elephant in the room. We don’t talk about it, we try not to think about it, we pretend it doesn’t exist. That elephant is the fact that we are all on a one way journey through this life. Our time is limited. None of us knows in advance when our end of the journey will come, but that end will come.
When we pull ourselves out of denial and gaze directly at this elephant, we can realize something important: our opportunities should be seized now. That good we can do? Don’t put it off. That kind word? Say it. That gift or remembrance? Give it now.
We will not have this place and time and opportunity to make a difference again.
Many are on the front lines of this pandemic, either working in health care or in essential jobs to keep the world moving, while others of us are on the sidelines waiting. We worry about ourselves, but also about our friends and family members on the front lines. Will they be safe? What are the right words to encourage them and let them know we love them?
In this interesting article, health care worker Dorothy E. Novick suggests Ring Theory as a way to modulate our expressions of concern. It works like this:
“I came across an article about “Ring Theory,” written by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. In this construct, we imagine a person who is suffering, like Margi, sitting in a small circle surrounded by concentric rings. Her dearest relatives sit in the circle closest to her. Best friends sit in the next larger circle. More friends and colleagues occupy the next one. And so on.
“According to Ring Theory, a person in any given circle should send love and compassion inward, to those in smaller circles, and process personal grief outward, to those in larger circles. To Margi and her mother, I should have said, “I love you, and I’ll do everything I can to support you.” And only when talking to others should I have said, “Her suffering feels impossible to bear.
“Comfort in, grief out.
“Ring Theory works for supporting health-care providers during the trauma of covid-19. We are grappling with a complex duality of mission plus terror. We are proud of what we can contribute and passionate about our patients’ well-being. But we are frightened — for our safety, for our patients, for the spouses and children we might expose.”
When we speak with people working in positions of danger, practicing Ring Theory makes good sense. Our comfort, praise, and admiration gives those heroes strength and helps them continue. Our hysteria or forwarding doomsday articles simply doesn’t. In all of this, we should strive to do no harm and let our words offer comfort.
Novick relates a message she received that helped give her comfort, a message that gives us a good example for how we can show up for people in dangerous positions right now:
The message read, “I am holding you in my heart being on the front lines of these difficult times. The professional skill, kindness, support and tenacity you give your patients and your medical community I am sure is a comfort in this darkness. Sending much love, appreciation and admiration.
“My heart rate slowed and my skin warmed over as I read the message. Then I pulled my mask over my face and opened the door to the next patient room.”
That, right there, is the power of the right words at the right time. We each have that power to do good right now.
The might have beens are a killer. We each take so many forks in the road, it’s easy to wonder how our lives might be if we had taken a different turn—gone to a different school, chosen a different career, picked a different partner. Those might have beens can keep us up late with longing and despair about the life we currently have. And, more importantly, they can strip those lives, the actual lives we are living, of joy.
Consider this poem by Carl Dennis:
The God Who Loves You
BY CARL DENNIS
It must be troubling for the god who loves you To ponder how much happier you’d be today Had you been able to glimpse your many futures. It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings Driving home from the office, content with your week— Three fine houses sold to deserving families— Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened Had you gone to your second choice for college, Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted Whose ardent opinions on painting and music Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion. A life thirty points above the life you’re living On any scale of satisfaction. And every point A thorn in the side of the god who loves you. You don’t want that, a large-souled man like you Who tries to withhold from your wife the day’s disappointments So she can save her empathy for the children. And would you want this god to compare your wife With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus? It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation You’d have enjoyed over there higher in insight Than the conversation you’re used to. And think how this loving god would feel Knowing that the man next in line for your wife Would have pleased her more than you ever will Even on your best days, when you really try. Can you sleep at night believing a god like that Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives You’re spared by ignorance? The difference between what is And what could have been will remain alive for him Even after you cease existing, after you catch a chill Running out in the snow for the morning paper, Losing eleven years that the god who loves you Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend No closer than the actual friend you made at college, The one you haven’t written in months. Sit down tonight And write him about the life you can talk about With a claim to authority, the life you’ve witnessed, Which for all you know is the life you’ve chosen.
We are each called to new challenges today. To make a difference, to protect the community, to keep our hope alive. Over the last few weeks, we have seen stories of both tremendous generosity and simple acts of kindness. And of compassion and resolve from leaders such as this from Queen Elizabeth.
As we move forward, Queen Elizabeth’s challenge to act in a way which will make us proud years from now rings true. How we respond to these times defines us. Consider the acts of this little boy working to secure PPE for his local hospital.
What are we here for anyway? What’s the point? Some people joke, ‘Life is hard, and then you die’, and there’s some truth to that. We are finite. We struggle. But there is purpose to life, and it lies in what we do for others. Andre Agassi says,
“Remember this. Hold on to this. This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting value or meaning. This is why we’re here.”
Others joke ‘The one who dies with the most toys wins,’ but those things we do purely for ourselves are vanity. Instead, when we use our gifs and talents to reach out and help others, we’ve upped the good in the world. We’ve made a difference.
Though isolated, each of us has the ability to reach out. Phone calls, cards, texts, care packages. Others need to hear from you. They need to know someone cares. And you need to know you care about others. If you have extra, you can share. If you are going to the store, you can pick up something for someone who can’t go out. So many ways to help. And in the helping, we help ourselves as well.