“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.“-Harriet Tubman
This week, I came upon the scene above during my morning run. I love seeing birds in any setting, but I especially notice them when I run, likely because they help distract me from my burning lungs, my fatiguing muscles, and now, my obsession with staying at least six feet from anyone else on my path.
Living in Tampa, I am fortunate to see a variety of water birds on a typical day: elegant White Egrets sniping fish in the shallows; scores of Seagulls dotting the bay and careening in the sky above; snake-like Anhingas diving deep below the surface before finding a perch to stretch their wings and dry their fluffy necks; and of course, massive Brown Pelicans, who seem to take pleasure in scaring people and wildlife alike when they suddenly plunge from the sky into the water to catch an unsuspecting meal.
And this doesn’t even count the flocks of White Ibis that sometimes scour the lawns in my neighborhood, looking for bugs to eat and leaving a trail of black and white “evidence” of their visit.
The most remarkable part of this particular morning, though, was that I hadn’t seen any birds until I took that photo. It was strange, because I always see “my birds” when I run; in fact, I look forward to seeing them. Just like my dog, Arthur, “my birds” have no idea what’s going on in the world right now, and part of what I enjoy about them lately is that seeing them takes me out of my own reality, if only for a few sweaty seconds.
As ridiculous as it may sound, I have to admit I felt a little panicked when I didn’t see any birds at first. When I came upon that group of ducks, I felt fairly relieved. But then, when I looked more closely, I noticed it seemed like they were all staring at something across the bay.
Along with the ducks, several people on the path (all six feet apart) were also staring and taking photos of this beautiful, fiery sunrise. It seemed to mesmerize us all with its brilliance, and I had a sneaking suspicion the social media captions for those photos would be some iteration of, “Tomorrow will be better.”
In that moment, I saw a strange parallel with this whole COVID-19 quarantine experience. Just like the Anhinga I usually find in one of a handful of alcoves, or the Seagull that typically sits guard somewhere on the railing, we’re also not in our “normal” spots. Our usual haunts are empty, and many of us are watching the sky, looking for some indication that tomorrow will be better than today.
I’ve also heard a lot of people talking about grief lately. Not for loved ones lost to the virus, but grief for the lives we all had planned for ourselves, or for a shared future that has been completely upended by this crisis.
At least initially, many of us viewed this as temporary, hoping the impact would be minor and things would “go back to normal” soon. I don’t know what stage of grief you’re in right now (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance), but I get the sense that many of us are still staring at the proverbial sunrise, holding onto hope that when the dust settles, we will return to the normalcy of our lives before this started.
I’m also not sure which stage of grief I personally fall into, but I recently came to believe that after we get through this, there will be a “new normal” waiting on the other side. I don’t know exactly how the “newness” will manifest; however, I don’t think I can allow myself to believe it will be the same anymore.
One thing I am sure of, though, is that in face of this kind of realization, my mind can be a powerful ally or a formidable enemy (and if I’m completely honest, it’s been more the latter than the former lately). In trying to stay in the light and fight the darkness, I find looking to others who have been resilient and persevered despite their bleak circumstances to be tremendously useful. It helps me to be more accepting of our current situation, cherish the things I have even more, and feel motivated to do anything I possibly can to make the “new normal” manageable for my family, my community, and others.
In that vein, this week I wanted to look to someone who never had a reason to expect anything good to come to her, yet saved hundreds lives, gave ceaselessly of herself, and changed the course of history. This week, I examine the unparalleled life of Harriet Tubman.
You know her name and perhaps her story, but is there something more we learn from her purpose-driven life–one of a someone born without a right to her own life, much less a better tomorrow? Let’s find out.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery. As with most slaves during that time, her exact date of birth is unknown, but it was likely between 1820 and 1825. Born Araminta, or “Minty,” as she was called, Tubman was enslaved at the same plantation in southern Maryland as her parents and nine siblings.
“I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.“-Tubman
As a child, she cared for the owners’ children before they began hiring her out to other plantations, where she was whipped and became deathly ill. When Tubman was in her early teens, the overseer at one plantation accidentally hit her on the back of her head with a two-pound weight, practically breaking her skull. He returned Tubman to her owner, bleeding and unconscious, and she was then left for two days without medical care. After miraculously surviving the head injury, she began seeing visions and having intense dreams that she interpreted as God speaking to her. It seems that similarly to John Muir, Tubman credited divine intervention for her call to pursue a life with greater purpose.
During the years she was enslaved, Tubman lost three of her sisters when they were sold, breaking up their family, and she also learned that although both of her parents should have been given their freedom at 45 years old, the next generation owner refused to release her mother. As odious as these practices were, they were common, and this oppressive system and Tubman’s own experiences likely ingrained in her a mistrust in the future, or at the very least, little to no expectation of a better future for her and her family.
When she was in her 20s, Tubman decided to change her reality and her future by escaping from slavery. In her words, “[T]here was one of two things I had a right to: liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” To tell her mother, she sang a coded song to another slave about her planned departure. Tubman then traveled the Underground Railroad north, walking the nearly 90-mile route through woodlands and marshes at night, before arriving in Philadelphia as a fugitive slave.
While many slaves escaped and understandably focused on preserving their own freedom, Tubman almost immediately went to work fulfilling her life’s calling of helping to free others. Starting with family and friends, Tubman helped around 70 slaves escape over the course of 11 years and 13 trips south. These expeditions were treacherous and life-threatening, but Tubman would not relent in her quest to free as many slaves as possible. This earned her the nickname, “Moses of her People.”
When the Civil War started in 1861, Tubman joined the fight for the Union believing that victory would lead to freedom for all slaves. She began her service as a nurse, but soon after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Tubman was leading scouting missions, mapping the terrain, and providing reconnaissance. She even became the first woman to lead an armed assault in the Civil War in a raid that freed more than 750 slaves.
Although she is an historic figure whose bravery and legacy are undeniable, Harriet Tubman was never truly compensated for her service to our country. And the little money she did earn? She used that to buy land where relatives and other black Americans could come to feel safe, and later in life, to build a home for impoverished elderly people of color.
Harriet Tubman had no reason to believe when she was a little girl, enslaved on a plantation, living within a system that was built to oppress her, that her future would include savings hundreds of lives, serving as a leader for her people, and fighting in the war that would ultimately outlaw slavery. And yet, she did accomplish those and many other incredible feats. Before she passed in her 90s, Tubman even joined the suffragette movement and advocated for women’s voting rights along with Susan B. Anthony.
While Tubman’s experience as a slave seems unimaginable today, her courage and willingness to keep fighting despite not knowing what her future held still applies, especially in times like this.
And in terms of purpose? For me, the biggest takeaway from Harriet Tubman’s life is that regardless of the circumstances, a true calling must serve others in some way. It may never be on a scale as consequential as Harriet Tubman’s, but your skill, talent, or passion must be channeled to help others in order to truly become your life’s purpose.
I believe we all have the right to grieve the plans we made, and I am in no way comparing this crisis to slavery or saying that we are not allowed to feel sad or angry or frustrated because we aren’t facing anything close to the adversity Harriet Tubman faced. Instead, I think perhaps rather than look to the sky and wait for things to return to “normal,” we can be inspired by Tubman and use this time to see if using our gifts to serve others can help us find our ultimate purpose.
After writing the beginning of this post, I went on another morning run along my usual route. And guess what was waiting for me when I arrived at the water?
It was one of the most stunning sunrises I have ever seen. And another promising sign?
“My birds” were all back in their little spots along the bay, completely unaware that I had been missing them, or that I was overjoyed to see them again (except for my creepy long stares, anyway).
So, perhaps the “new normal” will be better than today, and we’re not wrong to take a few moments to gaze longingly at each new sunrise. We won’t know for certain until far in the future, when we’re able to look back with the clarity of time. But thanks to Harriet Tubman, we can at least sleep soundly with the knowledge that we don’t have to know exactly what the future will bring in order to find our purpose and help others in the process.
“Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.“