My friend, the author John Ketwig, and I were having an email exchange about books recently. Though we’ve now known each other for many years, describing to each other the contents of our various bookshelves and random stacks of books (the to-be-read piles holding the charming label of tsundokus in Japanese slang) was a fun addition to our understanding of one another.
In one email, John wrote this beautiful reflection, “My books are the foundation of my beliefs, and I refer back to them in times when I am concerned or unclear about something.”
This past week, I had a number of experiences that made it hard for me to hold onto John Lewis’s definition of faith, which is often my touchstone for the challenges of social change. Lewis wrote:
“Faith, to me, is knowing in the solid core of your soul that the work is already done, even as an idea is being conceived in your mind. It is being as sure as you are about your dream as you are about anything you know as a hard fact… Even if you do not live to see it come to pass, you know without one doubt that it will be.”
For a moment, as my colleague Eric Larson was generously exploring one such experience from last week, I touched on a feeling of despondency. Finding that there, that sense of why-bother both felt obvious and horrifying to me. I reminded myself that I do the internal and external work of social change not for a hoped for outcome of a hate-free, completely equitable world but because I feel better – more fulfilled, more in synch with my values – knowing I’ve spent time and energy trying to make it so.
Following John’s lead, I then asked myself: What are the books that remind me how to be in this moment?
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach came to mind, as did John Lewis’s Across that Bridge and Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart. It was to Valarie Kaur’s See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love that I turned, though, opening both the book and my notes on it to refresh my spirits with ideas like:
“Your breathlessness is a sign of your bravery. It means you are awake to what’s happening right now: The world is in transition.”
“I do not owe my opponents my affection, warmth, or regard. But I do owe myself a chance to live in this world without the burden of hate. ‘I shall permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him,’ said Booker T. Washington.”
“The greatest social performers in history did not only resist oppressors – they held up a vision of what the world ought to be.”
“Chardi kala was woven into Sikh scriptures and our vernacular, commonly translated as ‘relentless optimism.’ But what I witnessed in Oak Creek [in the wake of a mass shooting in which 6 Sikh people were killed in their house of worship in 2012] and what I was learning from this family was different from optimism. This was not about the future at all. This was about a state of being in the present moment, as if now is all there is. Now and now and now. It is moving from Moment with a capital M to Moment with a capital M. This state of joyfulness inside the struggle – an energy that keeps us in motion, a breathing that keeps us laboring, even inside the pain of labor. Hope is a feeling that waxes and wanes, sometimes brilliant and luminous, sometimes a faint sliver in the sky, sometimes gone completely. No matter how hopeful or hopeless we feel, we can choose to return to the labor anyway. Sometimes we receive the gift of our labor. Sometimes we do not. But it does not matter. Because when we labor in love, labor is not only a means but an end in itself.”
“The way we make change is just as important as the change we make.”
“I had forgotten the stars, burning so strong and long that their light reaches us long after they have died. Isn’t that what our lives and our activism should look like? Not the supernova, a single outburst under pressure. We must be the long-burning star, bright and steady, contained and sustained, for our energy to reach the next generation long after we die. Oh, and to be part of constellations! Let us see ourselves as part of a larger picture, even if we are like the second star on Orion’s Belt, or the seventh of the Seven Sisters. For there is no greater gift than to be part of a movement larger than ourselves. That means that we only need to be responsible for our small patch of sky, our specific area of influence. We need only to shine our particular point of light, long and steady, to become part of stories sewn into the heavens.”
“If we take a linear view of history, then we are sliding backward.
“But if we see the story of America as one long labor, then we have a different view. Progress during birthing labor is cyclical, not linear. It is a series of expansions and contractions, and each turn through the cycle brings us closer to what is being born.”
And so I go into this week with a renewed focus, no longer hijacked by the inevitability of this world’s imperfection, which is all too often expressed in the cruelest words and ugliest actions, but rather reminded of my community, both known and unknown, and connected to the joy that’s woven into “deep solidarity [which] was rooted in recognition – I show up for you, because I see you as a part of me. Your liberation is bound up in my own.”
Pulling oneself up by their own bootstraps is an impossible task; its current use as an expression of self-sufficiency has been sapped, over time, of its original sarcasm. Fasten your bootstraps then give me a holler so we can explore how partnership actually aids advancement toward your bigger life and badder self.