Who are your heroes? It is really an enlightening exercise to sit for a minute and ponder this question. Are your heroes, perhaps, people who fought against injustice, spoke out when they could have remained silent, ran into danger to save others, had a vision for the world that transcended the accepted theories?
It tells us something of ourselves to consider our heroes and perhaps points a way to where we might use our voices or actions to better the world.
No matter who our heroes are, though, it is unlikely they acted fearlessly. It is far more likely that they understood the dangers, were afraid, but did it anyway because it was important.
We can, too.
Who are your heroes right now today? The ones making a difference for us as we negotiate all the current challenges? What qualities do you admire in them?
In 2016, Pope Francis sainted Mother Teresa. She was a beloved paragon of a selfless life, ministering to the poor and dying, shining a light on the importance of the little things and the love of family. After her death, her diaries showed her struggles with doubt. Once feeling clearly called to her mission, in the last several decades of her life she felt God’s absence. She said,
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love–and now become as the most hated one–the one–You have thrown away as unwanted–unloved. I call, I cling, I want–and there is no One to answer–no One on Whom I can cling–no, No One.–Alone … Where is my Faith–even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness–My God–how painful is this unknown pain–I have no Faith–I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart–& make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them–because of the blasphemy–If there be God –please forgive me–When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven–there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul.–I am told God loves me–and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
And on until her death, she felt God’s absence, rather than his presence. And yet she persisted doing the work to which she had been called, living a life of faith.
Some may call her a hypocrite to have an outward smile of peace and an inner crisis of faith, but isn’t her struggle every one’s struggle? Who among us doesn’t struggle with doubt? Don’t we all rely on faith when our paths grow dark and twisting?
St. Teresa of Calcutta inspires us to hang on during the dark nights of the soul, to continue to walk the walk, to be faithful and steadfast, and to shine light in the dark places. She can aptly be considered the Patron Saint of Doubters.
During dark times, it is easy to lose our way. What are some ways you have kept going even during a crisis of faith?
What makes some people able to empathize more than others, able to help in dire circumstances, able to put the greater good above the personal good? Bryan Stephenson, founder of the Equal Justice Institute, fierce advocate against systemic racism, and criminal defense attorney for those on death row explains: “I do it because I’m broken, too.” That recognition of a common humanity and brokenness by a system that needs changing propels him to fight.
Who among us isn’t broken? Because we all are bound together, we all suffer in an unjust world. Because we all have known pain, we all have the capacity to put ourselves into the shoes of those hurting.
In his book, Just Mercy, Stephenson explains:
My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.
We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt–and have hurt others–are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us.
Paul Farmer, the renowned physician who has spent his life trying to cure the world’s sickest and poorest people, once quoted me something that the writer Thomas Merton said: ‘We are bodies of broken bones.’ I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
We all have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our humanity
…So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak–not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken. …We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. But simply punishing the broken–walking away from them or hiding them from sight–only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.
Just Mercy, by Bryan Stephenson
How many of the problems we face today can be mitigated by recognizing our common humanity, by following the Golden Rule of treating others how we would have them treat us, a tenet found in many of the world’s religions? How would we have others treat us if we were the elderly, the sick, the refugee, the hurt, the accused, the other? Each of us would benefit from considering things from this perspective. Bryan Stephenson continues:
Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
…I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, If we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t want to kill the broken among us who have killed others. Maybe we would look harder for solutions to caring for the disabled, the abused, the neglected, and the traumatized.
Just Mercy, by Bryan Stephenson
We are all broken. Some of us don’t acknowledge that. We have all hurt and been hurt. It is that humbling insight that can help us recognize our common humanity across all divides. If we just have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Stephenson refers to an unnamed pastor who would preface singing: “The minister would stand, spread his arms wide, and say, “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” Amen to that.
From Shari: It’s probably obvious from the long post how much Stephenson’s book has moved me. I recommend it to anyone and everyone. It is a masterful look behind the scenes of criminal defense work, as documented in the movie, but it also interweaves the history of systemic racism in our country and highlights many areas that need our focus.
I would love to have your thoughts on this in the comments. All thoughts are appreciated. It feels a bit like whispering into the wind to write a blog. I would love to hear your thoughts to build a sense of community.
One of the side-benefits or hardship is cultivating resilience. Learning new things and new ways of doing old things helps sharpen the saw. It also helps us stay engaged and young. In this excellent article, Kerry Hannon argues that learning something new is a key factor in building the resilience we need to weather setbacks and navigate life’s volatility, particularly now.
When you’re in the process of learning, your viewpoint changes, and you spot connections that you never noticed before. “Resilience is about being adaptable in a variety of different circumstances,” said Dorie Clark, who teaches executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and is the author of “Reinventing You.” It is a combination of being able to pick yourself up when there are setbacks, but also it is about having the kind of cross-training necessary to be flexible in an uncertain world where we don’t know what is around the corner,” Ms. Clark said.
New York Times, “To Build Emotional Strength, Expand Your Brain,” by Kerry Hannon
Staying curious, intentionally putting yourself in places and situations where you are a beginner, and following passion all contribute to building resilience with a byproduct of satisfaction.
Those who routinely and consciously engage in learning become more confident about their ability to figure things out once a crisis hits, according to Beverly Jones, an executive career coach and author of “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like A CEO.” “Each time they hit a bump, they spend less time lamenting and quickly turn to determining what they must learn in order to climb out of the hole,” she said. Moreover, learners develop a more optimistic mind-set, which helps them jump into action, according to Ms. Jones. “In part, this is because each time you become aware of learning something new it feels like a victory,” Ms. Jones said. “You maintain the positivity that is a key to resilience.”
So, as we continue to adapt to a new normal, now is a good time to seek out new things to learn and new passions to pursue. More than ever, university courses and classes are being offered online, often for free. What is something new for you to pursue? Stay curious; keep your mind young; and follow your passions.
Sometimes we clench our jaws and build up our walls so that no one will hurt us or challenge us. We try to protect ourselves this way, but instead we become isolated. The people we’ve locked out feel threatening to us, so we make our guard stronger and more impenetrable. And we grow more isolated and afraid.
Brené Brown describes vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” It’s that unstable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone or do something that forces us to loosen control. But our strength is in our vulnerability, and when we open to pain, we also open to joy and connection. It is our authentic selves that hunger for connection, not the masks and shows we put on. Brenè Brown continues this way:
“I wasn’t taught how to deal with uncertainty or how to manage emotional risk. I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few. Learning how to be vulnerable has been a street fight for me, but it’s been worth it.”
The world isn’t black and white. It is nuanced and a zillion shades of gray. As are people, including you. As we open to our own authentic selves, and risk sharing that self with others, we open more fully to life, to experience, and to genuine connection with others.
For more, here is her original TED talk on vulnerability, a talk that has resonated with millions over the years.
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.
Some kids can’t not doodle. Or fidget. Or tap their pencils. What a delight it is when that person has a teacher, parent, or mentor who sees that as a gift rather than a bother.
Like this beautiful story about a kid who tapped, and the principal who recognized the percussionist hidden inside. “You’re not a problem; you’re a drummer.” Can you imagine the difference that one comment made in that young kid’s life?
Or this about the kid who doodled…on walls, and was hired to decorate the walls of a restaurant.
Photo credit: Greg Whale
So much of life is perception, of seeing the promise in the problem. These lucky kids had adults who saw something amazing and unique in them where others may have seen only pests. And that made all the difference. How can we adjust our eyes to see the promise in the problem and encourage those people rather than let them us? How can we be the ones to make that kind of impact on a kid who might be struggling?
Sunrise defeats night. The darkness will be driven away. When in the midst of the darkness, it may feel unending, but as day follows night, this, too, shall pass. The beauty of a sunrise is a lovely image to keep in mind when going through a problem. As sunrise defeats night, so hope conquers a problem. In times of great difficulty, we must hold on to hope that things will improve and that we can help.
Jane Goodall speaks to her hope for our future and, specifically, her hope in our youth in this moving speech.
She is right: if we don’t have hope, we give up, we do nothing. She says, “In this world of violence and fear, we must have hope for a better future.” That hope will sustain us and give us strength to solve the problems we face, as surely as day will follow night if we hold on.
How many gifts come with strings? The anonymous giver is a rarity. People want attention for doing good things, sometimes more than just attention. Sometimes they want people to feel indebted….forever.
The humble taker is as rare a unicorn as the anonymous giver. The myth of the self-made man is much more palatable than the humility of a man who realizes that all he has, is, and will ever be is founded on the generosity of others, many others, who have helped.
And yet generosity without self-interest and abundant gratitude are two qualities that lead to happiness, to community, to joy. We would do well to remember these things.
For more on Anonymous Giving by this author, go here.