When I was little, my parents told me I could be anything I wanted to be. “Anything?” I would ask. “Anything!” They would answer, with big smiles and complete sincerity. As motivating and inspirational as that was for my five-year-old self, I recently began asking my 33-year-old self if that was ever true. Not whether or not I could be anything I wanted to be. I’m an adult; of course I know that’s not true. There was a six-month stint pre-Harry Potter when I wanted to be a witch, and no number of made-up spells or conversations with animals or squinting really hard was going to make that a reality.
Instead, I recently began wondering if my parents truly believed I could and should pursue the calling that was calling my name. Not just one of a smattering of callings that fit into their paradigm of what success looked like, but the one thing that would light me on fire and making my life worth living. Was that message included in the definition of “Anything”? I recently concluded that, no, it was not.
This introspection, among others, is the result of a life crisis. I’m too old for a quarter-life crisis (hopefully) and too young for a mid-life crisis (also hopefully), so it’s just a plain old crisis. It feels like I woke up in a strange, unfulfilling career path after being knocked out cold. I cannot not recall how I got here, but I know in my bones that I need to run in a different direction.
Thus, the journey. Every journey needs to start somewhere, doesn’t it? In embarking on my journey to figure out my life’s purpose–the vocation or calling or “dharma” that I am meant to dedicate myself to during my short time on Earth–I am relying on the familiar: codependence. I will not be going on this journey alone; I’m hoping you’ll join me.
As someone with multiple “useful” degrees, I went to school long enough to know the best place to start is in the past. So, I’ll be examining the paths of others whom I believe fought to leads lives of purpose. These are not people who “always knew they wanted to be a doctor” or were encouraged to follow their true heart’s calling from an early age, even if it was outside the norm. I want to find the stories that will help you and me in spite of us not having those things early on.
Each week, I will aspire to dissect a different purpose-driven life to find the gems of wisdom that I hope will lead me to finding my own purpose. Hopefully, these gems will help you fight to find yours as well.
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“My confidence comes from doing what I love…[T]o be able to create something from the ground up and…walk in your purpose is a great feeling.”
Emotions are funny things, aren’t they?
Maybe “funny” isn’t the right word. In the case of negative emotions, maybe a better word would be “annoying,” “obstructive,” “distracting,” “frustrating”…
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been struggling with my fair share of negative emotions lately. Between what’s going on in the world, what’s going on in our country, and what’s happening in my own life, I’ve had times where I’ve felt bombarded by these uninvited guests.
When you’re someone who has a teeny-tiny bit of a control problem and has spent enough time studying self-improvement to practically earn a degree in “Self-help Studies”, negative emotions pose an interesting challenge. This is because the basic rules of most self-help books are to 1) focus on the positive, 2) maintain an attitude of gratitude, and 3) care less about things that aren’t important. At least on the surface, negative emotions don’t seem to have a useful place in this dogma.
This is also compounded by the fact that when you grow up with strong social cues about the acceptable ways for women to express negative emotions, you tend to say things like, that’s “funny” or “interesting,” instead of “that’s a heaping pile of dog crap.” (No offense, Arthur.)
But sitting in the discomfort of negative emotions can surely be beneficial for us in spite of the self-help rules, right? The recent widespread attempt at “unlearning” White Supremacy seems like a great example of this phenomenon. By sitting in the uncomfortable guilt of white privilege, many of us have begun educating ourselves and are (hopefully) growing in the process.
Plus, we know from Glennon Doyle and others that “feelings are for feeling.” The saying isn’t “positive feelings are for feeling,” it’s all of them, including those pestering, painful, gnawing ones.
These feelings allegedly serve some purpose for us. Psychology says that we feel sad or angry or any of the other 300+ emotions researchers have identified because it’s essentially how the body communicates with the mind. We feel emotions in different parts of the body, and then it’s our mind’s job to perceive the emotion, identify it, and ascertain the message it’s trying to send to us.
Assuming this is true, the what is the emotion of “frustration” sending us?
I don’t know about you, but frustration has been a frequent “messenger” for me lately. It can be as specific as feeling frustrated when I see other people refusing to wear masks or as general as the overwhelming frustration with the “new normal” to which we all have been forced to adjust. And it can be as global as feeling frustrated with the realities of living in a pandemic or as personal as feeling frustrated with the continued patience it seems I’ll need to show before I know where my personal journey will lead.
Logically, I can see the value of frustration in our fight to find our purpose. As I see it, frustration often stems from some kind of disconnect, and it can signal that something isn’t working. For me, it seems like I get frustrated whenever something in my life is rubbing me the wrong way or going against my core values. Even though I wasn’t fully aware of this and probably couldn’t have articulated it at the time, in each of my prior careers I felt frustrated because of a conflict between the work and my values.
In the context of finding and living your purpose, frustration with a career path can be a necessary catalyst for the change that allows us to find our dharma. After all, if we were feeling perfectly fine, there wouldn’t be any reason to change course, right?
But what do we do with this frustration? What do we do with the frustration of feeling like COVID isn’t a temporary crisis that will be solved with a vaccine? And the frustration of knowing we need to be able to move on in some way, but also remain petrified of getting an older relative or at-risk loved one sick? And the frustration that comes with the inevitable knowledge that we cannot control the most important things in our lives, as hard as we may try?
If you’ve figured this out in your life and have any recommendations, I would really appreciate you sharing them in the comments below. Otherwise, perhaps we can learn a thing or two about using frustration–and a willingness to surrender–to our benefit from this week’s purpose-driven life.
Issa Rae is the writer, actress, and producer behind the popular HBO series Insecure. In addition to starring in TV and film, she owns her own production company, started her own music label, is a voice for Google Assistant, and was a recent face for Covergirl. What can Issa Rae’s journey to find her purpose teach us as we navigate the frustrations of our own? Let’s dive in…
Jo-Issa Rae Diop was born in 1985 in Los Angeles, California. Her father was a Senegalese pediatrician and neonatologist, and her mother was a teacher who came from Louisiana. Her parents named Rae after her two grandmothers, Joyce and Isseu, and her aunt Rae, who was an artist. After Rae was born, her family lived in the Windsor Hills neighborhood of L.A. just north of Inglewood, where her father established his medical practice.
In the late 80s when gang violence began to creep into the Inglewood area, Rae’s parents decided to move their family to Senegal. In 1988, they relocated to the capital in Dakar, where they enjoyed life in an upscale neighborhood complete with a security guard and maid. Rae’s father attempted to open a hospital there, but when that endeavor stalled two years in, he and his wife decided to move their family back to the U.S.
Rae spent most of her childhood in Potomac, Maryland, where she attended mostly-white private schools. She has said that in Maryland, she participated in traditionally “white” activities, like street hockey and swim team. After elementary school, Rae’s family moved back to L.A., but this time to the more affluent View Park-Windsor Hills neighborhood father north of Inglewood. There, Rae attended middle school with a mostly-Black student population.
Rae has spoken about how challenging it was for her to navigate between mostly-white and mostly-Black worlds. She felt like an outsider in Potomac, where her white classmates asked her intrusive questions about her hair and treated her differently, and she also felt ostracized among her black friends in L.A., as she accidentally overheard her cousin telling friends that Rae was cool, even though she talked like a white person. Up to that point, Rae had such varying experiences in the different places she lived. These would all lead to finding her ultimate purpose, but at the time they mostly frustrated and challenged her.
After middle school, Rae’s mother enrolled her in King/Drew Magnet High School, one of the best schools in south L.A. There, she finally felt a sense of belonging with her mostly Black and Latinx classmates. She began acting in more complex race-related productions, and she experienced what she called her “pinnacle Black experience.”
After high school, Rae attended Stanford University where she majored in African American Studies. At Stanford she continued acting, but this time she channeled her talents into her own productions. Rae began by adapting the Spike Lee movie School Daze for the stage, which played to a sold-out audience. She also started dabbling in production and film, creating a mockumentary series called Dorm Diaries her senior year. It was done in the style of MTV’s The Real World, focusing on the everyday drama of hip, young people, but Rae’s cast featured only Black students. This was the first step on her journey to find her purpose, but it would take a few more twists and turns before she figured this out.
After graduating in 2007, Rae moved to New York City for a fellowship with the Public Theater. Although she had been planning on pitching Dorm Diaries to TV networks, she lost everything one night when a burglar broke into her Washington Heights apartment and stole everything–her production equipment, tapes, laptops, scripts–everything she would need to produce and sell her series.
Depressed and in debt, Rae was frustrated with her bad fortune but not deterred. She continued to attend networking events, as uncomfortable as they could be for the self-described introvert. One night after attending an especially painful event, she opened her journal and wrote the words, “I’m awkward. And black.” Those four words, which represent a personality and experience she was frustrated to have never seen portrayed on screen before, became the basis for a web series she created and starred in called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.
The series followed J (played by Rae), a young, admittedly awkward Black woman as she deals with uncomfortable workplace experiences and an inter-office romance. The show was a huge hit, expertly utilizing situational comedy to tackle race politics and employing inner monologue voiceovers to illustrate the strange positions in which Black women are often placed. In 2011 when she launched Awkward Black Girl, Rae was working odd jobs and considering either law school or business school. However, after the series went viral, she abandoned those unfit paths and continued on down her destined road.
After the success of her show, several production companies called Rae about adapting it for television. Although this seemed like her big break, she quickly realized that these companies wanted to completely re-work the show for broader appeal, which defeated its purpose of depicting a specific kind of Black experience. In 2012, she also got the opportunity to work with the Queen of Primetime, Shonda Rhimes (creator, head writer, and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, among other notables). They worked on a show called I Hate L.A. Dudes about dating high maintenance men in L.A. After writing the script, Rae was inundated with notes from the network and from Rhimes, and in the end the show didn’t get picked up because she lost her way. As Rae said, “I compromised my vision, and it didn’t end up the show that I wanted. It wasn’t funny anymore.”
After that failed attempt, Rae went back to the drawing board and continued creating different web content to hone her voice. In 2013, she received a call from an executive at HBO who had seen her online material asking her to pitch ideas. She came to them with her idea for Insecure, a show about an almost-thirty, admittedly insecure Black woman struggling with the transition to adulthood. Her talent agency connected her with Larry Wilmore, host of The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, creator of The Bernie Mac Show, and correspondent for The Daily Show. With Wilmore’s partnership, Rae created Insecure and wrote the script that HBO picked up in late 2014.
Insecure received critical acclaim from its debut in 2016, and it’s now in its fourth season on HBO. The show is difficult not to binge, with compelling character development and drama between not only the protagonist (Issa) and her romantic partners but also between Issa and her best friend, Molly. It’s a relatable show that intentionally portrays regular life with a mostly-Black cast–a strangely rare phenomenon in television and film. Beyond the cast, though, Rae rallied to hire Black directors, producers, and other people behind the scenes of the show. Frustrated with the lack of opportunities for people of color in the film industry, she used and expanded on her big break to give others the next important steps in their journeys as well.
In addition to Insecure, which earned her an Emmy nomination, Rae appeared in the movie Little alongside Regina Hall, executive produced and acted in A Black Lady Sketch Show, and starred in the recent Netflix comedy Lovebirds with Kumail Nanjiani. She also wrote a New York Times bestselling memoir called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.
Rae’s influence isn’t limited to traditional media, though. As previously mentioned, she also recently created her own record label, partnered in opening a high-end cafe in Inglewood, and invested in Streamlytics, a data analytics startup founded by Black female entrepreneur Angela Benton. Rae is quickly becoming a mogul, and her aim is to keep growing her empire in the same vein as Oprah, Diddy, and Ellen.
The frustrations Rae faced in growing up between two different worlds where never truly felt like she belonged, in never seeing herself–an “awkward” Black girl–depicted in the media, and in asserting her point of view once she did get the opportunity to make her mark were all instrumental to finding her purpose. She used these obstacles–and the strength and knowledge she gained in overcoming them–to create her own path. In fact, it was probably only in working through these frustrations that she was able to find and zero in on her greatest asset: her relatable authenticity.
Rae could have taken the burglary of her NYC apartment, the failed show with Shonda Rhimes, or any of the other struggles she worked through as signs from the universe that she was going in the wrong direction and pursued another career. But instead, she showed humility and surrendered to the currents pushing her to focus on what makes her story unique.
Although the frustrations must have been, well, frustrating, they helped to shape Rae’s voice and give her clarity about her true aspirations, which ultimately went well beyond acting and producing. And strangely enough, though she never gave in, it was only through surrender that she figured out how best to pursue her purpose. In the face of life’s frustrations, Rae surrendered her previously-held notions about what it takes to be successful in her industry. If you want to sell a show, you have the equipment to make a pitch, right? Or, if you want a career in television, you can’t go through the web. Or, blow your shot to work with Shonda Rhimes.
By surrendering to the understanding that she wasn’t going to get there by taking the traditional route, Rae shattered the paradigm and blazed her own purpose-driven trail. As a result, Rae is living her dharma of creating relatable and authentic images of Black people in the media and supporting the representation of Black people in every sphere.
So, what can we learn from Issa Rae’s journey, which we will undoubtedly see continue to evolve from here?
Unfortunately, I think the best lesson for me is that sometimes our frustrations present the greatest opportunities for the growth and refinement needed to reach our ultimate purpose.
I say “unfortunately,” because this lesson is very difficult for me to swallow. The idea that something causing us frustration, grief, or any other negative emotion should be embraced goes against 34 years of finely-tuned self-defense mechanisms. How does one fight that kind of internal system, which must have a strong basis in evolutionary biology? How do we tear down something so deeply rooted, it was literally was built for our survival?
If Issa Rae’s story gives us any indication, I’m guessing it’s that slippery, elusive creature that I struggle to hold onto when the winds of uncertainty blow my way: surrender.
So, the other takeaway I see from her journey is that sometimes the ways we surrender–and not fight–are more important as we seek to find our purpose.
A final note: I will be taking a hiatus from posting for a bit to reflect on our work here together over the past five months. I value anyone who takes the time to read any of my posts, and I will be back with more questions, profiles, and musings soon. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me through my professional website here if I can be of service (or for more Arthur pictures). Thank you! ❤
“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
I apologize to any arachnophobes out there for not giving you an advance warning, but when I stumbled upon this little guy in my garden this week, I knew I needed to share him. I’m not usually a fan of spiders, but I found myself pleasantly surprised by this arachnid spotting. His camouflaged hiding place in my basil perfectly suited his lime green existence, and I was happy our plant could provide a safe spot to rest his eight legs and close his many eyes. Until the giant human being came upon him, anyway.
When you think about it, it must be terrifying to live in the food chain knowing your best chance of survival is to avoid anything neutral colored. The neon green works in a basil plant, but take a step onto the black pavement or brown dirt, and he surely stands out like a beacon for the mockingbirds in our backyard. Not to mention the jays, cardinals, lizards, snakes, geckos…
The next day, I walked by and saw my spider in the same basil plant again, but this time his presence elicited less wonder and more impatience. I needed to de-flower the basil to help the plant grow fuller, but the tiny spider would not move. I gently urged it to move over to one of the several other unoccupied basil cabanas, but he refused to budge. Aware of my relative gigantic size, I was not expecting this. In being gentle, I was trying not to frighten him too much (for his sake, but also because I feared he might react by jumping on me…), but even with more aggressive prodding, he stood his ground–er, leaf.
Although it was mildly frustrating, I chose to give in and move on. Was de-flowering one basil stem so important that I needed to evict the tiny green spider from his safe house? No, it wasn’t. And, truthfully, it made me respect the the little bug even more than I would have otherwise.
It’s funny what happens when we stand up for ourselves, isn’t it? No matter the situation, the stakes always seem high whenever we must gather the courage to do or say something that may be perceived as subversive. And whether it’s something as seemingly simple as voicing your opinion in a meeting or confronting someone you love about a difficult topic, or something more objectively risky as protesting in the streets or speaking out against a powerful person, it’s usually impossible not to feel a heightened sense of fear when we do. Even if we may be experts at masking it on the outside.
But, those times when you do ignore the pit in your stomach and speak up, it seems to garner more respect and credibility than staying silent ever would, doesn’t it?
I don’t know about you, but when I think back to the instances where I stood up for myself or for something I knew to be right, I feel proud. Even in those situations where it didn’t ultimately change the outcome, I still felt a sense of integrity–either in staying true to myself or to my beliefs–that makes me glad I chose to take that risk.
So, then, why don’t we do it more often? Why are we humans, who have more relative safety and fewer things to fear, often unwilling to show the same courage that a tiny, vulnerable invertebrate showed without hesitation?
I’m no psychologist or anthropologist, but I have to imagine it has a lot to do with the relative complexity of our minds. In situations where we have nothing rationally to fear–bodily injury, death, or even some quantifiable non-physical harm–our brains are masters at creating fears that feel just as real. Even if the worst possible outcome is objectively minor, like feeling momentarily embarrassed or uncomfortable, we often still avoid these situations as if they could lead to our demise.
Sitting in discomfort is not…well, comfortable. Unless it’s something we perceive as necessary or beneficial to us, like exercising, agreeing to a new work assignment, or engaging in a difficult conversation with someone we care about, we generally try to avoid being uncomfortable. It’s the primary driver of success behind such mega-brands as La-Z-Boy, Amazon, Netflix, UberEats…(the list goes on indefinitely). Because who would want to sit on a hard couch if you could sink into a lush, supportive cloud that reclines? And why would anyone want to forfeit time and subject themselves to other people, who are uncomfortably different and similarly imperfect, when we can stay in our cocoons and order entertainment, meals, and practically anything else to “magically” appear at our doorsteps and through our screens?
Of course, I’m one of the worst offenders in this area. I only like to engage in manual labor when the cost benefit analysis weighs heavily in my favor. If it doesn’t, I would much rather lay on the couch and read or watch tv. And as someone with social anxiety, I practically have to force myself to interact with other people, even when I know I’ll be happy I did when the time comes. (You can imagine how pronounced the silver lining of quarantine was for me…)
But, I also know that discomfort is where growth happens. And as one of those annoyingly devoted students of self-improvement (just glance at my bookshelf for confirmation), I’ve recently been attempting to embrace discomfort. Right now, I’m dealing with discomfort in my career path, trying to understand uncomfortable truths about inequality, and facing personal fears by standing up and respectfully addressing things in my life that I haven’t had the courage (or inclination) to address until now.
I don’t know about you, but I find all of this discomfort incredibly challenging. It seems much of it stems from the discomfort of uncertainty, which is only magnified by the inescapable collective uncertainty of a global pandemic. Any chance that vaccine is ready yet? No? I’m going to have to continue to be patient without any end in sight? Oh, okay then.
If you’ve handled discomfort and uncertainty in your life, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. In the meantime, perhaps this week’s purpose-driven life can help us learn to sit in the discomfort–of uncertainty, of inconvenient truths, or anything uncomfortable life throws at us–and help us to hold our ground. Especially when the giant finger nudging us to move out of discomfort belongs to our own hand.
This week, we will examine the fight of Colin Kaepernick, civil rights activist and former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. He is, of course, well known for kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against racial injustice, but what can his journey to find his purpose show us about standing up for we believe in while trying to find ours? Let’s find out.
Colin Kaepernick was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1987. His father, a Black man, separated from his mother, a white woman, shortly before Kaepernick was born. Without the resources to raise her son as a single mother, Kaepernick’s mother placed him for adoption with a white couple when he was a newborn.
Kaepernick lived with his adoptive parents in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin when he was young. As recent as 2000, Black residents made up less than 1% of the population of the county where Kaepernick spend his earliest years. By the age of four, however, his parents moved with him and their two older biological children to California.
Once in California, Kaepernick thrived in sports from a young age. By the time he was eight, he played punter and defensive end for his youth football team. The next year, he became starting quarterback and completed his first long pass for a touchdown.
Kaepernick wasn’t solely talented in football, however. In high school, he played football, basketball, and baseball, and he was an all-state athlete in each sport his senior year. At the same time, Kaepernick was an excellent student as well, graduating with a 4.0 GPA.
Although he was a standout athlete in all three sports, Kaepernick received the most collegiate interest in his talents as a baseball player. He received several scholarship offers to pitch at various universities, but he was determined to play college football instead. As a result, he took the one scholarship offer the received to play football at University of Nevada, Reno.
In college, Kaepernick’s success continued as he put up exceptional numbers in passing yards, passing touchdowns, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns, and he received several honors from the Western Athletic Conference, including first team all-WAC quarterback and Co-Offensive Player of the Year. In 2009 after his sophomore year, Kaepernick was also apparently drafted to play baseball for the Chicago Cubs in the 43rd round, but he chose not to sign. By the end of his senior year, Kaepernick became the first and only quarterback to pass for over 10,000 yards and rush over 4,000 years in the history of Division I college football.
After graduating in 2011 with a 4.0 GPA and a business degree, Kaepernick was drafted to the San Francisco 49s as a backup quarterback. He didn’t see much time during his first season, but in his second season he fought to become starting quarterback and led the 49ers to the playoffs. In his first postseason game, Kaepernick set an NFL record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game. He ultimately led his team to the 2013 Superbowl against the Baltimore Ravens, but in spite of an excellent performance by Kaepernick, they lost 31-34.
The next season, Kaepernick again led the 49ers to the playoffs before losing in the NFC Championship game, and in 2014 he signed a six-year $126 million contact extension with the team. The next two seasons were difficult for Kaepernick, as coaching changes and injuries affected his play. Privately, he was also struggling with his outrage at the flagrant and unceasing incidents of police brutality against Black people.
In 2016, Kaepernick decided it was time to use his platform to affect real change in this area. First, he and his partner created the “Know Your Rights Camp,” whose stated mission is “to advance the liberation and well-being of Black and Brown communities through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization and the creation of new systems that elevate the next generation of change leaders.” He also made a “Million Dollar Pledge,” where he committed to donating $100,000 per month to “organizations working in oppressed communities” for ten months. Even though these were tangible, steps of no small importance, Kaepernick knew he needed to put more on the line to make a greater impact.
As a result, in August 2016 Kaepernick began protesting police brutality by sitting during the national anthem at a preseason game. His decision to sit went unnoticed initially, but during a postgame interview he made it clear that this was an intentional act of nonviolent protest saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
Kaepernick knew from the start that taking this stand would be a huge risk for him and his career. He acknowledged the potential fallout in the first interview saying, “If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” Kaepernick knew he was entering a period of uncomfortable uncertainty, but he decided standing up for himself and the cause he cared most about was worth it.
Throughout the 2016 season, Kaepernick protested police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem before every game. After sitting at first, he began kneeling after another player who was a former Green Beret suggested that kneeling would be more respectful of the military. Kaepernick gave few interviews around that time and began scaling back his social media in an attempt to control the narrative, but more conservative fans and commentators still decried his actions as “anti-American.” He was booed at games and vilified in the media even as he maintained his protest was an act of patriotism: “Once again, I’m not anti-American. I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”
In spite of his explanation and the support he received from countless Americans, including President Obama, Kaepernick suffered as a result of his activism. He opted out of his contract with the 49ers after the season ended in 2017, and even though other similarly-situated quarterbacks were signed, Kaepernick remained a free agent. He has not played an NFL game since. Although a confidentiality agreement prevents us from knowing the full details, a settlement agreement with the NFL in 2018 seems to support the assumption that he was, in fact, blackballed by coaches in the league because of his protests.
After Kaepernick’s last game with the NFL, however, the full force of his protests seemed to take hold. In the 2017 season, other players continued to kneel in protest, enraging President Trump. Trump’s venomous tweets and calls to fire any player who refused to stand during the anthem led to a reversal in thought by many in the league, including coaches and owners who joined by kneeling in protest as well.
But, it still didn’t lead to Kaepernick rejoining the NFL. After leaving the 49ers, Kaepernick continued expressing his desire to return and play for another team. Instead, he has been forced to sit in the discomfort of watching from the sidelines knowing that his chances to return will only continue to wane with time.
These last few years could not have been easy for Kaepernick, but there were some bright spots. In 2019, Nike released an award-winning ad reminding the world of his courageous stand against injustice. He continued working with Nike, counseling them on race-related issues, but it seems Kaepernick’s main focus has shifted to his activism.
Most recently, NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell, who voiced his opposition to Kaepernick’s protests and backed a 2017 ruling that players could no longer kneel during the national anthem, issued a statement about the NFL’s “ongoing efforts” to address systemic issues in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd.
I have to imagine this quasi-validation doesn’t change the discomfort and uncertainty Kaepernick endures to this day, not just as someone with unfulfilled career potential, but also as someone viscerally aware of the fact that it has taken years for someone like Goddell to even release a statement recognizing racial inequality.
And yet, Kaepernick has never flinched since he started down this road. He set aside his personal ambitions in favor of taking a stand. And even though he has lived in the discomfort of the aftermath since, he never expresses regret. His commitment has remained as steadfast, as he has said, “I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed.”
So, what can we learn from Colin Kaepernick’s fight to find his purpose of using his NFL platform to protest police brutality and spark the national debate that laid the groundwork for today’s movement?
Before giving my thoughts, I think it’s important to note that Kaepernick’s journey is not over yet, and while it’s extremely unlikely that he will play in the NFL again, I’m hopeful he will be recognized for his contributions and universally lauded for the courage that he showed. News of a recent deal with Disney and EPSN seems to point in that direction, but I’ll be waiting to see the full extent of his vindication.
Until that time, I think the most important thing we can learn from Kaepernick’s journey thus far is that we may have to endure great personal sacrifice to find and live our ultimate purpose.
For us, this might mean upsetting or disappointing people whose opinion matter to us, giving up a title or some other form of prestige, or perhaps something more tangible like a pay cut. In the end, though, I have to believe that just as with Kaepernick and our little spider friend, choosing to stand up for ourselves and our fight will be worth more than anything we must sacrifice along the way.
“Every day has the potential to be the greatest day of your life.”
There’s something magical about the Fourth of July, isn’t there?
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Independence Day still feels…sparkly.
Yes, I said sparkly. I may sound like a five-year-old, but I’m convinced this is the best way to describe the atmosphere and energy on the Fourth of July. In addition to sparklers spraying bright white light, mostly-illegal fireworks popping up and glittering down across the sky, and the totally acceptable low-level light beer buzz you can have throughout the day, the purpose of the holiday in and of itself is intoxicating in a sparkly sort of way.
I don’t know about you, but on July 4th I think I can actually feel the freedom ringing inside of me, rattling my bones and lifting me up with patriotic red-white-and-blue pride.
Some of my most favorite memories from when I was young happened on July 4th. I have vivid flashbacks of getting my very own metal-handled sparkler (which was thrilling to have, as my parents were rightfully vigilant about me not playing with fire). My favorite way to spend those twenty seconds was to write my name in sparking light across the dark sky once the sun set and the dank summer night crept in.
I also remember eating more cheeseburgers and hotdogs and chicken drumsticks than I care to admit, finishing each backyard BBQ off with a huge, juicy slice of watermelon (and a Chips Ahoy cookie…or five).
I can conjure up memories of backyard volleyball or badminton or kick the can, or those rare occasions where some brave soul invited my whole family (all four children and my parents) to a pool party at their home.
In fact, I can practically feel the drippy, sticky popsicle liquid running down my chin and hands, turning everything it touched a deeply-unnatural shade of electric blue. (Firecracker popsicle! Where have you been for the last 25 years?)
However, this Fourth of July felt very different from those in the distant and not-so-distant past, and not just because of COVID. The recent protests and my antiracist learning have made me much more aware of the fact that the freedom I feel ringing in my bones is not felt by all in our country. Far from it, in fact.
Instead of celebrating our country’s fight to win its freedom from English rule, this holiday serves as yet another reminder for many that the freedom our Founding Fathers fought and died for is still not enjoyed by all–more than 200 years later.
On July 5, 1852, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass addressed the hypocrisy and dichotomy of the holiday in a speech that has been widely shared online this year. It reads in part, “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
The fact that Douglass’ words still ring true today is incredibly sad. I know there are more eloquent and powerful ways to explain this understanding, but “sad” is the best way I can describe how it feels to me. It makes me sad to read the introduction to Douglass’ speech, in which he apologizes for his nerves and what he believed to be subpar speaking abilities (how far from the truth and his ultimate legacy as an orator!). It makes me sad to know that my fellow Americans–my neighbors, friends, and colleagues–are still being oppressed by a system from which I’ve unwittingly benefitted. And honestly, it makes me sad that so many people haven’t had the sparkly Fourth of July experience that I so lovingly remember.
“A smile or a tear has no nationality; joy and sorrow speak alike to all nations, and they, above all the confusion of tongues, proclaim the brotherhood of man.“
While I don’t think this needs to completely taint my childhood memories, I do think that the way I experience and celebrate this holiday needs to change moving forward.
Although I know how minor it is, the one teeny tiny change I made this year was to consume more of those things that remind me of the other, darker side of July 4th. From reading articles and speeches like Douglass’ to digesting the difficult messages posted from Black activists on social media, I was much more intentional about my holiday media consumption this year. I’m in no way suggesting I deserve a pat on the back for this, but incremental gains are still gains, right?
And just like everyone else on social media, I started what I plan to be a new July Fourth tradition: watching “Hamilton” as many times as humanly possible.
Please note: I am under no pretense that watching “Hamilton” is somehow going to make me and my future family better, antiracist people. I know that this requires more education, understanding, and vigilance than simply sitting on the couch and being wildly entertained. However, I still think this re-telling of the early years of our nation by a supremely talented and intentionally diverse cast moves the needle forward in reframing perspective. Beyond the diversity of the cast, though, the script is intentional in highlighting the injustice of slavery and hypocrisy of slave-owning leaders, and the hip-hop style of performance wonderfully obliterates cultural expectations for a story about one of our Founding Fathers. It’s a true masterpiece that was well worth the $7.49 we paid for a month of Disney Plus to watch it.
And although some have recently criticized the play for not going far enough in its depiction and treatment of slavery, there’s still time for Miranda and others in the industry to tackle this and other issues of inequality through playwriting (if the theaters ever open again) and other forms of entertainment. We know from the enormous gains in gay marriage and other social issues that television, movies, and plays can make a difference, and I am certain the changes erupting in our world today will result in tomorrow’s progressive and impactful masterpieces.
So, without further delay, this week’s purpose-driven life should come as no surprise in light of my “Hamilton” fawning. In examining his life and how he fought to become one of the most well-respected and acclaimed composers in recent history, what can we learn from the one and only Lin-Manuel Miranda? Let’s take a shot.
Lin-Manuel Miranda was born in 1980 in New York City. His mother, a clinical psychologist, and his father, a political consultant, were both born in Puerto Rico before coming to America. His mother immigrated to the U.S. as an infant, but his father worked hard to graduate college in early and leave Puerto Rico to attend graduate school in New York. Miranda’s unusual name, “Lin-Manuel,” came from a poem by a Puerto Rican writer that his father read as a teenager. From his christening, it seems Miranda was already destined to be a different kind of person than the world had seen before.
Miranda grew up 30 blocks north of Washington Heights in the Inwood neighborhood of NYC. Every summer, he and his older sister traveled to Puerto Rico to spend time with their grandparents and other relatives. When he was five, Miranda was accepted to the Hunter College Elementary School, a selective school for gifted children on the Upper East Side. The only student to attend from his neighborhood, Miranda was surrounded by mostly wealthy classmates. He again did not fit the expected mold, as he recalled spending time at the homes of his Jewish friends speaking Spanish with their housekeepers.
Growing up, Miranda’s parents were enamored with Broadway musicals, and though they could rarely afford to see shows in person, Miranda did get to see the trifecta: “Les Miserables”, “Cats”, and “Phantom of the Opera”. He has clear memories of these experiences, from being moved to tears at Fantine’s death, to having his hand touched by cats running down the aisle, to relating deeply with a story about “an ugly songwriter who wants to impose his will on the world.” Though Miranda was struck by musical theater from a young age, his ultimate purpose wasn’t as simple as working in the industry, and even that milestone took time.
When he was six years old, Miranda started learning to play the piano as a way to channel his innate musical talents, but he became disinterested by the time he reached middle school. In high school, he tested out another avenue for his gifts by trying out for the school play. After beating out a senior for the lead role and performing to rave reviews, something magical clicked, and Miranda devoted himself to musical theater. He directed “West Side Story” his senior year, and after seeing “Rent” when he was 17 years old, he began writing short plays as well.
After high school, Miranda went to college at Wesleyan University. There, he lived with other first-generation Latino kids and began to explore that side of his identity in ways not possible with his friends at Hunter. Drawing on that experience, Miranda began writing a musical set in Washington Heights featuring Latino characters, music, and style. The central plot about a love triangle wasn’t exactly compelling, but the innovative decision to have characters rap instead of sing visibly moved the audience.
After staging it his sophomore year, however, this play sat in Miranda’s desk for years. Upon his graduation, Miranda’s father urged him to go to law school, fearing his son needed a back-up plan in case his professional theater dreams were never realized. Miranda decided instead to begin substitute teaching at his old elementary school. As he remembered, “They did grammar, which we didn’t do when I was a student, so I was kind of learning grammar one lesson ahead of my kids.”
While substitute teaching, Miranda finally unearthed his Washington Heights manuscript and began working on it with a fellow Hunter alumnus. Two years and several rejections later, they brought in a young playwright to rework the play. The playwright made drastic changes to the plot, shifting focus to the charismatic main character and his vibrant neighborhood.
After that complete overhaul and several workshops, Miranda’s musical, “In the Heights,” finally premiered Off-Broadway in 2007, seven years after completing his first draft. In 2008, it moved to Broadway, where it won 4 of its 13 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical. Miranda was nominated for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as the main character, and the play even earned him a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
After that colossal success, Miranda slid effortlessly into creating and staging “Hamilton”, right? Not exactly.
In the years that followed his departure from the “In the Heights” cast, Miranda pursued a mishmash of opportunities, many of which don’t seem befitting a Tony and Grammy Award-winning composer. His success did open doors to working with greats like Stephen Sondheim and making special appearances on television shows like The Sopranos, House, and How I Met Your Mother. However, during this period he also performed at bar and bat mitzvahs, worked as an English teacher at his old high school, and wrote music for commercials. Miranda continued in musical theater as well, though, co-writing “Bring It On: The Musical,” writing and acting in a short one-man show, and performing in Merrily We Roll Along.
Although his life post-“Heights” was varied and uncertain, it was during this period of strangeness and uncertainty that Miranda’s true dharma would reveal itself to him.
While on vacation in Mexico with his future wife, Miranda began reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. He had purchased the 800-page book on impulse, but in hindsight, perhaps it was the universe that led him to the book that would change his life forever.
Miranda was gripped by the story of an orphan in St. Croix who willed himself to America, helped lead the Revolutionary War alongside George Washington, and used his writing to propel the subsequent birth of our nation. A year later, ideas swirling around his musical mind, Miranda was invited by President Obama to participate in the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word. The invitation suggested that he perform a number from “In the Heights,” but Miranda had other plans. Fueled by the fire that Hamilton’s story had ignited in his soul, Miranda performed a Hamilton-themed rap instead, which included the line that would later become part of his record-shattering musical: “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.”
From that night in 2009 to the Off-Broadway premiere of “Hamilton: An American Musical” in 2015, Miranda read Hamilton’s letters and writings, visited places of significance from his life, and worked tirelessly on rewriting and reworking each song in between bar mitzvahs and other aforementioned gigs. It was most certainly worth the wait, as “Hamilton” won practically every Tony Award in the musical theater category, earned Miranda a Pulitzer Prize, and enjoyed astronomical financial success.
Beyond the accolades, though, one of the greatest accomplishments of this show has to be the way it connected two seemingly disparate cultures. By using hip hop and choosing a cast that celebrates people of color, Miranda told a much more engaging and interactive version of the stale, white-male-dominated story told in classrooms. And its audience reflected how successfully it bridged this gap, as this was not just a show that President Obama enjoyed; Vice President Pence went to see it, too.
“Hamilton” opened other doors to Miranda, and he has since composed songs for the Disney movies, including Moana (you know, the best, most catchy song in the movie), acted in the Merry Poppins reboot, and used his remarkably large platform to advocate for Puerto Ricans and other Latinx Americans.
So, other than inspiring you to watch the film adaptation of “Hamilton” with me (again) this week, what can we learn from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fight to find his purpose of using his talents to bring hip hop to musical theater and bridge cultural divides in the process?
I think the main takeaway from his journey is that the thing that makes you different might just be the calling that’s calling your name.
Miranda was never one to blend in or adhere to anyone’s expectations of him or his art. Instead of trying to fall in line with traditional notions of what makes a musical a hit, he used his roots and background–what makes him unique–to create a new form of musical theater.
Another lesson about purpose I can glean from Miranda? Just keep going. Because even when you think you’ve made it, your version of “Hamilton” might just be waiting for you around the corner.
Finally, after celebrating July Fourth in a new way this year, I also think there is a greater lesson to be learned from Lin-Manuel Miranda about perspective. Miranda’s perspective as a first generation Latino American is precisely what makes “Hamilton” such a brilliant, exciting play to watch. It’s not the white-bread version of the story that I grew up hearing; it’s indescribably better.
So, just as a different perspective on the story of our Founding Fathers improved our collective experience of this tale, there are undoubtedly numerous other facets of our lives that can be improved by the perspective of someone different from ourselves. Perhaps by changing our perspective on the Fourth of July and other American traditions in much more inclusive way, we all can feel the immeasurable joy that watching a sparkler burn down brings to my five-year-old heart.
“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”
Summertime, and the living is easy…
…or is it?
I don’t know about you, but I can barely walk my dog, Arthur, around the block without coming back covered in a fine mist of sweat these days. Although Tampa summers aren’t known to be mild, it’s been especially brutal this week.
The summer here tends to feel a lot like groundhog day, except with the complete opposite weather. We have highs in the low 90s, lows in the high 70s, and a thunderstorm every evening to chip away at some of the extreme humidity that builds throughout each day. This phenomenon is why our record high temperature is only 99 degrees; it’s not like the dry Southwest where the temps barely pause at the 100-degree mark before continuing to climb, and it’s also not like my childhood home in the mid-Atlantic, where a 105-degree heat wave can sink in and take up residence for days at a time.
However, this week the heat index in Tampa was a ripe 110 degrees. Combine that with 100% humidity, and you can see why I’m struggling to stay dry. It makes me contemplate whether it would it be preferable to pant like Arthur to regulate my body temperature. Judging by the half hour he spends in a daze on the cool floor after each walk, probably not. But it would be infinitely more entertaining to see people panting instead of simply walking around with pit stains and “swamp butt,” no?
In addition to the outfit changes and additional laundry necessitated by this weather, I also notice a marked difference in everyone’s faculties and sense of urgency, from the bag boy at the grocery store to my friendly neighbors. This phenomenon even strikes Arthur. Sometimes when I walk him at the hottest time in the day, he’ll reach a shady patch of grass and seem to forget what he’s doing. He starts sniffing around, circling once or twice, and then looks up at me with watery eyes and a heavy pant. You might say I’m projecting, but I swear when this happens he’s looking at me for guidance, because the heat has made him forget the one thing he’s there to do.
Similarly, I swear that my mind and my movements slow down as a consequence of the oppressive heat and humidity. The southern saying, “as slow as molasses,” might apply here, except that molasses must become as runny and thin as the sweat dripping down my back in these swampy conditions. I would test this out, but who keeps molasses around? I’m a Northern transplant and Tampa is culturally farther north than most places in the “south,” so molasses is thankfully still a foreign substance to me.
When the muggy, balmy Florida summer settles in, it’s like a houseguest who can’t take the hint that they’re being too loud. Ignoring all of us mammals as we melt and pant, the roasting summer sun shines proudly with an intensity that seems stronger than it ever has in centuries. Or, in the case of the houseguest, louder than he’s ever been since those rowdy college parties.
The summer in Tampa isn’t all bad, though. One of the most enjoyable parts about this time of year is the non-mammal wildlife. The abundant reptile population is thriving in the blazing sun, and you can find minuscule baby lizards darting and dashing around your feet whenever you near a plant or building.
And this year, we have had the both incredible and incredibly annoying experience of a baby bird who left the nest but is not quite ready to be on her own quite yet make a halfway house of our yard. She hops and hobbles along the fence on both sides of our home, which is delightful to watch. But then she also constantly calls out for her mother, who alights every now and then to feed her a worm or other insect morsel. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I legitimately stood by the window watching this fluffy-feathered bird for a solid twenty minutes after dinner last night. And I can still hear its desperate cries for more food as I type these words.
Then there are the other animal sightings, the ones that immediately make me feel as though the universe is again sending me signs of what to do, or in this case, not do.
Earlier this week, I had a peculiarly long encounter with a crow. It was in the street, ostensibly swooping down to peck at something tasty, but it was standing still. It stared directly at me, maintaining an uncomfortable eye contact with its blue-black eyes. Of course, being an admirer of birds, I didn’t mind it so much. Its shiny, deep purple feathers were immensely pleasing to look at, when I could finally break eye contact to notice them, anyway. And I loved how its smooth head and body were completely devoid of any speck or grit that might interrupt the beauty its dark shape brought to the street.
Of course, after this strange interaction I immediately searched “crow symbolism,” and I learned that the crow represents “mystery of creation” and “personal transformation.” Between that and the teenaged bird chirping in my ear, I’ll take these as biased signs from the universe that I am on the right track.
Much of the personal transformation I’ve been experiencing lately has convinced me that I cannot control outcomes. It also unfortunately seems that resisting the energy drawing (or pushing) me one way or another will only serve to drive me mad. So, perhaps the summer’s lazy influence isn’t such a bad thing right now. Perhaps like the young adult bird, the time will soon come when I will be flung into a set career track, but for the moment, I should listen to what the universe is telling me and lie still enough so that I can be pushed.
That’s easier said that done, especially for someone who has worked her whole life to try and control the things that matter most to her. I don’t know about you, but I tend to really struggle with this concept in practice. In theory, it makes total sense; I’m completely on board with letting go. But when I reflect on my actions and thoughts, even at the end of a single day, I find I’m woefully underperforming on integrating this into my everyday life.
Fortunately for us, I think this week’s purpose-driven life can serve as a tangible example of how “going with the flow” and listening to the cues sent to us can be the key to finding and living our dharma. This week, we will examine the life of Ella Fitzgerald, one of the most popular jazz singers of all time whose powerful voice and recognizable recordings transcend time and genre. What can Fitzgerald’s life teach us about fighting to find our purpose? Let’s explore together.
Ella Fitzgerald was born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia. Her parents were never married, and while they stayed together for a few years, they separated when Fitzgerald was only 2 1/2 years old. Her mother then began dating a Portuguese man, and they moved together to Yonkers, New York when she was young.
When she was six years old, Fitzgerald’s half sister was born. That same year, she also began attending school in her neighborhood, which was largely made up of low income Italian families. To provide for their family, her stepfather dug ditches and worked as a chauffeur, and her mother worked at a laundromat. Fitzgerald also helped support her family by taking odd jobs here and there, which included unknowingly running money for local gamblers on her street.
Fitzgerald was an excellent student as a child, but she was also well-rounded in her interests and activities. She loved dancing from an early age, listened to any jazz record she could get her hands on, and even joined the neighborhood kids in playing baseball. When she was old enough, Fitzgerald often took the train to Harlem with the friends to the famed Apollo Theater to see singers, dancers, and other performers.
Then, a terrible tragedy struck Fitzgerald and her family when her beloved mother died in a car accident. Only 15 years old, Fitzgerald was heartbroken with grief. She continued to live in her stepfather’s home, but rumored abusive treatment led her to leave and begin living with a nearby aunt. Shortly after that, her stepfather also passed away from a heart attack. Her younger sister came to live with her aunt as well, but Fitzgerald struggled tremendously as a result of these losses.
Around that time, Fitzgerald started skipping classes, working as a lookout for a brothel, and getting involved with a Mafia numbers operation. She ended up getting caught by the police and was sent to two different reform schools, one in the Bronx and one in upstate New York. She was beaten by caretakers and subjected to abusive conditions in the reformatory system, but she managed to escape and make her way back to Harlem, where she lived on her own and got by performing in the streets.
At the age of 17, Fitzgerald was selected in a lottery to perform at one of the earliest amateur nights at the Apollo Theater. In 1934, she took to the stage with plans to perform a dance number for the crowd. However, after dancing duo the Edwards Sisters closed the main show, Fitzgerald was certain her dancing wouldn’t live up to their performance. As she recalled, “They were the dancingest sisters around.”
Instead, she walked on stage and stood in silence for a few seconds as the amped-up crowd booed and murmured impatiently. In that moment, Fitzgerald let go of her plans and let her natural gift effortlessly flow through her. She began singing “Judy,” a song she knew well because it was one of her mother’s favorites. The crowd quieted down quickly, and by the end, they were was shocked and awed by her talent. Demanding an encore, the crowd cheered her on as she sang, “The Object of My Affection,” a song made popular in the 1930s by her mother’s favorite singer. In that fateful moment, the universe revealed Fitzgerald’s purpose to her.
“Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience. I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life.”
That night at the Apollo forever changed Fitzgerald’s life and trajectory. She began entering and winning talent shows, and she won the chance to sing with the Tiny Bradshaw Band at the Harlem Opera House. There, she met Chick Webb, a famous band leader and jazz musician. Through that opportunity, she got a gig traveling and singing with his band for $12.50 per week.
The next year, Fitzgerald recorded her first song. It was moderately successful, and she began performing at “The World’s Famous Ballroom,” the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Taking cues from the changing music scene around her, Fitzgerald then recorded her second song, “You Have to Swing It” in the newly popular bebop style. On this record, she intentionally used her voice as another horn in the ensemble, and she also experimented with scat singing for the first time. These inventive talents would become her calling card as a singer and performer.
In 1938 when she was 21 years old, Fitzgerald recorded “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” a playful take on the nursery rhyme. Selling over one million copies, the album was a number one hit and and is still one of her most famous recordings. With this song, Fitzgerald became a household name.
A year later, Chick Webb passed away, and so Fitzgerald took his place as bandleader. Renamed, “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra,” Fitzgerald and her band recorded 150 songs over the next seven years while performing across the country.
In the late 1940s, Fitzgerald then signed with a new manager who helped usher her into the spotlight as a jazz singer. She performed with the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” tour, recorded and sang with Louis Armstrong, and started producing her now-famous songbook series. In this series, which she recorded from 1956-1964, includes covers of songs by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and Duke Ellington. The series was incredibly popular, and even Ira Gershwin remarked, “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”
During that time, she also counted Marilyn Monroe as among her most ardent fans. She credited Monroe for getting her first gig at the Mocambo, a popular nightclub. As Fitzgerald explained, “[Monroe] personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night.”
Fitzgerald embarked on world tours, made appearances in television and movies, and appeared in commercials. She endured blatant racism throughout her journey, but it was especially egregious while she was on tour. While on the road with the Philharmonic, her white manager, who was a staunch believer in having all of his musicians treated equally, angered one venue in Dallas with his demands for equality. The police there responded by raiding Fitzgerald’s room and arresting everyone, as Dizzie Gillespie and others were playing dice. Fitzgerald recalled, “They took us down, and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph.”
Fitzgerald also was prevented from performing two shows in Australia because of racism when she and other Black musicians were ordered to leave their first class seats on a plane headed to Sydney from Honolulu without reason. The airline staff would not let them re-board the flight or even get their luggage, so they were stuck in Hawaii for three days with nothing. Even though the airline claimed in the press that the order wasn’t racially motivated, Fitzgerald and her crew later sued for discrimination and won.
“I guess what everyone wants more than anything else is to be loved. And to know that you loved me for my singing is too much for me. Forgive me if I don’t have all the words. Maybe I can sing it and you’ll understand.”
Throughout the 1970s and early 80s, Fitzgerald continued touring across the globe, even as her health declined. She received Kennedy Center Honors for her contribution to the arts, the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan, and honorary doctorates from Yale, Dartmouth, and other universities. In 1991 after experiencing years of health complications, Ella Fitzgerald gave her final performance at Carnegie Hall. She passed away in 1996 at the age of 79 in her home in Beverly Hills.
Ella Fitzgerald’s story is one of extraordinary talent, luck, and adaptability. Her long-running career started as a fluke when she literally won the lottery to appear on stage at the Apollo, and her meteoric rise came because of her ability to change and follow the path that was right for her. A path some might argue was set for her.
When she was on that stage at 17, she could have steamrolled fate by insisting that she perform the dance she had practiced and perfected. Instead, Fitzgerald read the room, took in the cues that she was given, and surrendered. Expectations shattered, she could only focus on the present moment–not the outcome–a critical key for her true purpose to shine through.
Fitzgerald wasn’t just an amazing singer, though. She was born with a gift for singing, but the full expression of her dharma came when she permitted herself to be lead in different directions. She openly embraced the change in musical taste when the big swing band era of her early career ended and bebop and jazz started gaining momentum. She also followed advice to lean into the outlets where she could shine the most brightly. Fitzgerald successfully followed the current of her life, even as the rapids pushed her back and forth with changing times and personal challenges.
So, what can we learn from Ella Fitzgerald’s fight to find her purpose of creating new art forms with her voice and bringing lasting life to many of the best-written songs of all time? First and foremost, I think we can agree that based on her experience, we must always be on the lookout for opportunities through which to channel our gifts and talents, especially if they’re unexpected. If Fitzgerald hadn’t done so at the Apollo, then she might never have become the renowned singer we all know her to have been.
However, it wasn’t just her willingness to put herself out there that sets Fitzgerald’s story apart; it was her ability to then set her ego aside and follow the path that was right for her. So, I think the greater takeaway is that when we do get that opportunity, we must let go of the outcome and surrender to the path that is set forth for us.
Fitzgerald could have insisted on continuing to perform the swing music she was comfortable with, or she could have avoided experimentation with her vocal style, or she could have refused to record songs that were already so well-known and loved. But she didn’t. She took in the information that the universe (or God, or whatever) was giving her, and she chose to follow the guidance that it/he/she was sending. And in the end, it meant a lasting legacy and songbook that will continue to be enjoyed for generations to come.
Of course, it’s easy to say this in hindsight. At the time, I have to imagine Fitzgerald was nervous about making the right decisions in her career and in her life. After all, she was divorced at least twice, if not three times based on some accounts. But that’s because Fitzgerald was human, just like us.
So, if Fitzgerald could give up control in the face of a rowdy crowd booing her at the Apollo, then maybe you and I can consciously look for those comparable places in our lives where we can let go a little and allow our natural instincts to take over.
Based on the strong message I’ve been getting from the Florida summer, it seems like it might be time to stop trying to force things to happen and instead embrace the discomfort, channel my energy into what comes most naturally to me, and make peace with a state of constant sweatiness. What about you?
And then, if we all can follow Fitzgerald’s lead and let go, perhaps the path to a fulfilling life will also appear before us when we least expect it.
“By doing the work to love ourselves more, I believe we will love each other better.”
Just like this wild beauty I found growing among the sticky, prickly weeds that make up our backyard, some profound bright spots seemed to pop up this week.
I don’t know about you, but I first felt it when I heard the news of the Supreme Court’s decision that employers can no longer legally fire someone for being gay or transgender. The news of this historic ruling brought tears of joy to my eyes, both because of the relief it must have brought so many people, and also because of how unexpected it was given the makeup of the court and the timing–coming just days after the Department of Health and Human Services rolled back protections for trans people in the healthcare setting.
Then, only a few days later, the Supreme Court handed down another decision that made me feel more uplifted and optimistic than I had in months. The ruling keeps the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in tact, which means scores of people who came to the US as children are now legally protected against deportation if they meet certain eligibility requirements. As most dreamers are law-abiding people who have spent most of their lives in America paying taxes, working hard, and starting families of their own, I see this ruling is a welcome reprieve.
To me, these are bright spots in an otherwise chaotic and nerve-racking time. And yet, there is still so much to be distraught about.
Another Black man, Rayshard Brooks, was killed in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta after a police offer shot him in the back. The father of four had fallen asleep in his car when police approached, and he was shot as he ran away after failing a sobriety test. When a suspect is fleeing, there is no reason to use deadly force. The officer shot and killed Brooks not for fear of his own life, but to stop him from from getting away.
And there still has not been justice for Breonna Taylor, the young Black EMT who was shot eight times and killed in her sleep when the police conducted a no-knock search of her Louisville apartment. “Breonna”s Law” was passed by the city council there to ostensibly prevent tragedies like this from happening again, but only one officer involved in the shooting has been terminated, and no charges have been filed against any of the officers for taking her life.
And then there have been the alarming recent murders of Black trans women, including Riah Milton in Ohio and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells in Pennsylvania. The phrase, “Black Trans Lives Matter” can be seen on countless signs carried by protestors in cities across America, but our country could not change fast enough to save those women and the dozens of other trans people who have been targeted in recent years.
There are so many things I learned this week, like the statistic that Black mothers are 2.5 times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers, even when all other factors are the same. Or that 51% of Black trans women have experienced homelessness at one point in their lives, and the American Medical Association considers violence against trans women an epidemic in our country.
But, I was also reminded this week of the message I most associate with certain famous trans women and notable gender-fluid or gender nonconforming public figures: one of the best ways to maintain a positive outlook, regardless of what is happening in your life or in the world, is practicing radical self-love.
From Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Eye saying, “I want people to fall in love with themselves and to be really proud and full of joy for the space they take up,” to author and former People magazine editor Janet Mock writing, “There’s nothing more powerful than truly being and loving yourself,” it seems like some of the most well-known trans and nonbinary people are the most vocal about the importance of loving yourself.
It seems counterintuitive in some ways, doesn’t it? That those who have been most oppressed, marginalized, and subjected to unthinkable acts of violence and hatred would be the same people to herald the most powerful messages of self-love? It’s as though they, too, are like the flowers growing boldly in the sandy soil among the weeds. It doesn’t seem possible that anything could thrive in such terrible conditions and against such debilitating odds, but when they do, they shine more brilliantly and more beautifully, elevating and revealing the unseen beauty of their surroundings.
Of course, trans, nonbinary, and other gender nonconforming people are much more complex, diverse, and varied than this simple metaphor might suggest. But just as the dismantling of a system built and fueled by White Supremacy requires all of us to understand the issues, policies, and perspectives of Black people, enjoying and admiring the light and gifts that people with these identities share with the world means going beyond the stereotypes in film and television, even if we perceive them as positive.
Fortunately for us, this week we will examine the purpose-driven life of someone who just released a key resource for us all to learn how trans people have been historically portrayed in the media so that we can better understand why we have such perceptions, or perhaps fears, of this special group of people.
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the rise of trans awareness is that as more trans people–especially trans women–start to feel more confident about living outside of the shadows, they expose themselves to a greater risk of violence. With this understanding, it is my intent that this serves as an inspiration to protect trans people with your vote and support initiatives that will make the world a safer place for them.
With that in mind, this week’s purpose-drive life is that of Laverne Cox, actress and LGBTQ+ advocate. Her documentary, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen just premiered on Netflix to rave reviews. What can Laverne Cox’s experience and fight to find her purpose as a Black trans woman teach us all? Let’s dive in.
Laverne Cox was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1972 with an identical twin brother. She and her brother were raised by their single mother and grandmother in the AME Zion Church. A performer from an early age, Cox began studying dance when she was just 8 years old, and she danced in recitals starting in third grade. Although Cox has not revealed much about her childhood, she has shared that she attempted suicide when she was just 11 years old after realizing she was attracted to other boys and being bullied for not acting “the way someone assigned male at birth was supposed to act.”
In spite of everything she faced, Cox remained a standout in performing arts and received a scholarship to attend high school at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, a boarding school in Birmingham where she focused on classical ballet. After graduation, she attended Indiana University at Bloomington on a dance scholarship. Although she was still studying dance, Cox began to broaden her scope by acting as well, playing Hud in the college’s performance of Hair during her sophomore Year.
After spending two years in Indiana, Cox transferred to Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. Although still a dance major, Cox shifted gears to acting after a theater teacher scouted her and asked her to join his play. After that, she was officially “bitten by the acting bug.”
While at Marymount, Cox also began her physical transition, as she “went from being gender nonconforming to being more and more femme.” By her senior year, Cox was presenting as female when she was sought out to act in her first film. As she recalls, “I was spotted on the subway sporting long box braids, too much make-up with long lashes, a paisley vintage coat with a faux fur collar, platform shoes, and a mini dress.” As she began to transition, Cox performed in drag queen shows as a way to continue expressing her natural gifts for acting, singing, and dancing, but she never actually identified as a drag queen.
After graduating college, Cox spent several years waiting tables as she pursued her passion for theater. She continued performing and dancing in drag shows, acting in independent and student films, and going on countless auditions during her 20s and 30s. During this time, Cox experienced what she calls a pivotal moment in her life. In 2007, she saw trans actress Candis Cane on the prime time TV show Dirty Sexy Money, the first openly trans woman to have such a role. Just as seeing Beauford Delaney allowed James Baldwin to envision himself as an artist, seeing Cane achieve this first made Cox believe it was possible for her to have a career as an openly trans actor.
Although she landed minor roles in Law and Order and HBO’s Bored to Death, Cox finally broke through in 2010 when she appeared in VH1’s reality show, I Want to Work for Diddy. Cox stood out among the contestants, leading VH1 to approach her for other show ideas. This brought the opportunity to produce and star in TRANSform Me, a reality show where Cox and two other trans stylists gave women external and internal makeovers. With this credit, Cox became the first Black trans woman to produce and star in her own TV show.
Then, in 2012 when she was 40 years old, Cox secured the role that would sky rocket her celebrity and bring her to the center of American popular culture. She portrayed “Sophia Burset,” a trans woman in prison for credit card fraud, in the wildly popular Netflix show, Orange is the New Black. Cox played Burset from 2013-2019, during which time she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award (the first only trans person to receive this honor), received a Screen Actors Gild Award, was featured on the cover of Time magazine, and established herself as a leader and activist for the transgender community.
Cox understood the power of her portrayal and importance of this character, saying, “All of the sudden they’re empathizing with a real trans person. And for trans folks out there, who need to see representations of people who are like them and of their experiences, that’s when it becomes really important.”
After Orange is the New Black ended for Cox, she continued to act in various shows and films. However, her greater purpose of using her talents to promote awareness and acceptance for trans and other LGBTQ+ people has been arguably even more consequential in her other projects.
Cox produced an hour-long documentary called, Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, which followed seven trans youth from age 12-24 as they navigated their everyday lives. The documentary earned her a Daytime Emmy Award as Executive Producer, making her the first openly trans woman to receive the award. As an LGBTQ+ advocate, Cox has also spoken out loudly for trans rights and protections in various major news and media publications, has appeared in videos and other campaigns to raise awareness for issues facing people who identify as trans or LGBTQ+, and even collaborated with the ACLU on a video called, “Time Marches Forward & So Do We,” about trans history and resistance, which she narrated.
In her most recent venture executive producing Disclosure, Cox married her passion for entertainment with her higher calling of bringing trans people and issues to the forefront. The documentary shows how trans people have been portrayed in television and film throughout history, and it features interviews and commentary from her and other prominent trans celebrities and activists to give viewers a more personal feel for how the often horrific representations affected trans people.
Although Cox faced many different hardships and obstacles throughout her life, she rarely talks about those in her interviews. Instead, she is a force for love, acceptance, and positivity. It radiates from her tone of voice and in her walk when she gracefully takes to the many red carpets you could find her on before COVID hit. She is unapologetic about who she is, and she is vocal about how healing it can be for anyone to lead a more authentic life.
“Believing you are unworthy of love and belonging – that who you are authentically is a sin or is wrong – is deadly. Who you are is beautiful and amazing.”
So, aside from general inspiration and a new documentary to put on your watch list, what does Laverne Cox’s story teach us about finding our own purpose?
I think the number one lesson is that you must love yourself in order to believe you truly deserve to live a life of purpose.
I believe that so much of our self-doubt stems from an inability to fully and completely love ourselves. Of course, this is because it’s not easy. Even Cox says, “Loving myself is something that I work on every day.” This is because, contrary to what we see from the outside and the message she sends about self-love, Cox knows that the world makes it incredibly hard to love yourself. And that’s especially true for someone facing even more oppression and discrimination than most.
However, Cox’s attitude in spite of what she has endured also teaches us that the hardships we face in fighting to find our purpose will only help us shine more brightly once we make it to the other side. If we can survive the harsh conditions and the sandy soil, then we are even more likely to bloom into the most colorful, charismatic versions of ourselves, just like Cox has done so beautifully in her life.
And as with those vivid flowers in our scruffy yard, the benefits of being and loving the best versions of ourselves will not only be ours. In espousing self-love, Cox isn’t just hoping each individual who hears her message will be transformed; she knows the world will be a better place for us all if we are able to love ourselves better.
“When you put love out in the world it travels, and it can touch people and reach people in ways that we never even expected.”
This is because when we love ourselves more, we are less affected by the negativity of others.
When we love ourselves more, we are less frightened by other people or things that we don’t yet understand.
And when we love ourselves more, and truly believe we are worthy of love, we are able to see everyone, including those with differing viewpoints, as also worthy of love.
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.“
It feels to me like there is so much swirling around in the ether right now.
Do you feel it, too?
So many emotions, from lucid anger and trepidatious fear, to reluctant hope and cautious relief.
So much energy, from the people demonstrating in the streets and those virtually shouting for freedom, to the resumed sound of cars commuting on highways and businesses fighting for a share of the dwindling post-quarantine economy.
And coursing through it all? Bold-faced uncertainty, refusing to step aside and give us any assurance that the things we all crave are coming: a more just world where amends have been made, where future generations do not believe a person is better or worse because of the color of their skin, and where no one lives in fear of hugging another person because of a socially-transmitted virus.
Whether it’s the continued uncertainty surrounding COVID and the anticipated second wave, or the uncertainly about what actual changes will come as a result of the loudest cries for racial equality in history, one critical component threatens any potential progress on both fronts.
Have you ever started a project around your home or apartment only to lose interest and abandon it halfway through? Maybe you still have supplies from those projects sitting in your closet or garage, or even materials you bought for a project that you never actually started?
I don’t know about you, but we have a small collection of those around our house and in our shed. I even recently came across a cross stitch kit in my nightstand that I bought in 2014 thinking it could keep me occupied while my husband was on a work trip. It sat completely dormant until a few weeks into the quarantine, but after dedicating a few nights to the craft, it’s now forgotten again in another drawer with only a few dozen new red stitches to show for it.
Although I can venture a guess as to why I lost my interest in cross stitching (it embarrassingly took too much effort to both stitch and watch Netflix at the same time…), I’m not sure why it seems so challenging to maintain longterm focus on the things we know are critically important. Even with things that directly affect our mortality–seemingly the most crucial of motivators–we still struggle to consistently press on after an initial inciting emotion fades.
So, then, how can we vanquish COVID when victory will require strict adherence to practices that go against our very nature as humans, especially when it’s for an indefinite period of time?
And how can we transform our society into one that truly values Black lives and those of every marginalized group, especially when we know it will require the sustained hyper-focus necessary to radically reform a deeply-entrenched and poisonous system?
And how can we tackle these issues, and whatever else 2020 has in store for us (::knock on wood::), when we know that our own weariness is threatening to slow the wheels of change and eradication?
I’m certainly not enlightened enough to answer these questions; however, I’m hopeful that our purpose-driven life for this week, one of someone who was incredibly wise, brave, and resilient, can provide us with insights into how to remain vigilant and power through the ennui.
This week, we will examine the life of novelist, playwright, poet, and reluctant activist, James Baldwin. Baldwin was one of the most influential American writers of this century whose work inspired countless other talented writers, including Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, as well as singers, actors, politicians, and thought leaders. And as a Black gay man, Baldwin’s legacy serves as an inspiration to more than one marginalized community.
What can the purpose-driven life of James Baldwin teach us about maintaining momentum when fighting for a cause, fighting a virus, or fighting to find our purpose? Let’s find out.
James Arthur Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York City. By the time he was born, Baldwin’s mother had already left his biological father. She married a Baptist preacher when Baldwin was very young, and together they had eight children.
Baldwin’s childhood was challenging, as his stepfather (whom he called his “father” in interviews and essays) treated him much worse than his siblings. Baldwin was expected to care for his younger brothers and sisters, but when he wasn’t watching them, he would escape his father’s harsh treatment by spending time alone at the library.
In spite of the substandard education available to him in Harlem, Baldwin knew early on that he was intellectually gifted. As he said, “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” Baldwin’s teachers also noticed his exceptional abilities when he was young, selecting a play he wrote at 10 years old to be performed by his classmates.
By the time Baldwin was in his early teens, his passion for writing had taken hold. He was enamored with the work of Harlem Renaissance writers, like the poet Countee Cullen. With encouragement from his teachers, Baldwin became editor of the school newspaper and published his first article at the age of 13. However, his father was unsupportive of his academic pursuits, and he urged Baldwin to follow in his footsteps by joining the ministry.
Baldwin acquiesced to his father’s expectations and became a junior minster when he was 14 years old. Even though writing was clearly his greatest gift, the power of his father’s influence and the years spent fighting to be loved by him took a toll on Baldwin’s momentum and self-belief. As a result, he began preaching in the Pentecostal church, eventually drawing crowds that were larger than those coming to see his father.
By age 17, however, Baldwin gained the perspective and strength needed to defy his father’s wishes and fight to pursue his true passion for writing. He left the ministry and focused his attention on creating art. During a chance encounter in Greenwich Village, Baldwin met Beauford Delaney, a modern painter. Through Delaney’s mentorship, Baldwin discovered it was possible to be a Black artist, and he began to envision a future for himself as a professional writer.
“[Delaney was] the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion…I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken, but I never saw him bow.“
After graduating high school, Baldwin took odd jobs while he wrote essays, stories, and book reviews. When he was 23 years old, his first professional piece was published in The Nation. Around that time, Baldwin had become increasingly weary of the incessant discrimination he faced as a Black man in segregated America. Seeking a more liberated society where he could be perceived and perceive himself as more than just a “Black writer,” Baldwin left the United States and moved to Paris at the age of 24.
Once in Paris, Baldwin quickly became enmeshed in the Left Bank community of writers, poets, painters, and intellectuals. Having realized in his teens that he was attracted to other men, Baldwin also found in Paris a society that was much more accepting of gay relationships. Soon after he moved to Paris, Baldwin met and fell in love with a young Swiss man named Lucien Happersberger.
“Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.“
Between Paris and Happersberger’s chalet in Switzerland, Baldwin wrote his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, a semi-biographical story published in 1953. Two years later, he released Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays whose title was inspired by Richard Wright’s novel. Then, in 1956 he published his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, whose first person narrator is a gay man living in Paris. Just as Baldwin resisted attempts to be defined by his race, he also refused to acknowledge the seemingly autobiographical nature of his second novel to avoid labels based on his sexual preference.
Baldwin had been watching the American Civil Rights Movement from across the pond, but he was so struck by the image of a young Black girl bravely walking into a desegregated school that he decided to return to the United States to join the cause. In 1957, he traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina and Montgomery, Alabama to interview locals and write about the racially-charged experiences in the South post Brown v. Board of Education (the Supreme Court ruling the declared segregation of schools unconstitutional). During his travels, Baldwin met Martin Luther King, Jr. and wrote pieces that were published in Harper’s, Partisan Review, Mademoiselle, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker.
In 1963, Baldwin embarked on a lecture tour of the South in which he advocated for activism that fell between the nonviolent methodologies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the more “radical” tactics promoted by Malcolm X. Around that time, Baldwin also gained national widespread acclaim for his writing, as Time magazine featured him on its cover that year and opined, “There is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.”
Baldwin also figured prominently in the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. However, many of those involved with the Civil Rights Movement were not supportive of gay rights, and though Baldwin was neither openly out nor entirely closeted, his involvement was controversial for King. Ultimately, King distanced himself from Baldwin and Bayard Rustin, another gay man who was instrumental in organizing the March, due to the pressure from other activists.
Undeterred, Baldwin continued promoting equality and reporting on the injustices inflicted on Black Americans. He called for national civil disobedience when an historically Black church was bombed in Birmingham shortly after the March on Washington, and also he traveled to Selma, Alabama to witness the threat tactics used by police to deter black voters and join the famed fifty-mile march from Selma to the capitol in Montgomery.
In spite of his role as a leader and influencer in the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin again rejected attempts to label him as a “civil rights activist.” Like Malcolm X, Baldwin believed that civil rights are by definition owed to any person considered a citizen. He also didn’t consider it a “revolution” because its goal was a “radical shift in the American mores, the American way of life … not only as it applies to the Negro obviously, but as it applies to every citizen of the country.”
By 1970, Baldwin was ready to leave America once again, and so he bought and settled into a home in the South of France. In his years there, Baldwin welcomed old friends, like Beauford Delaney and Sidney Poitier, as well as new ones, like Nina Simone, Miles Davis, and Ray Charles. He continued to write into the 1980s, but in 1985 Baldwin tragically died of stomach cancer at the age of 63.
James Baldwin’s purpose of using his gift for writing to change minds and advocate for civil and gay rights took decades for him to truly fulfill. In fact, you might argue that the effect Baldwin’s legacy and works have had on these causes has only continued to become more and more impactful as the years have gone by.
Baldwin could have given in to his father’s wishes and dedicated his life to religion, or he could have been deterred by the prejudices against him, or he could been satisfied with any of the categories society consistently struggled to box him in. Being a “great Black writer,” or “great gay writer” is better than not being recognized, no?
For Baldwin, the answer was always, “No.” His integrity was more important than his reception, and he fought to maintain that throughout his life.
So, what can we learn from Baldwin’s example for maintaining our momentum? For me, I think the key takeaway is to figure out what you need to continue fighting, and give yourself permission to seek that out.
Baldwin knew intuitively that he and his work would be hindered by the racism and homophobia of American society. This understanding led him to move to Paris in his early 20s and then return in his 40s to live out the remaining years of his life. Only by making the change necessary for him to create meaningful art was Baldwin truly able to pursue his purpose and make a significant difference for Black and gay Americans.
“If you’re treated a certain way, you become a certain kind of person. If certain things are described to you as being real, they’re real for you whether they’re real or not.“
Another lesson to learn from Baldwin? Integrity will always lead us on the right path. Whether it’s finding our purpose, identifying and acting against examples of White Supremacy in our own lives, or taking the precautions necessary to ensure the health and wellbeing of not just ourselves, but everyone in our communities, integrity is the guiding force that will always be right no matter how things evolve in 2020 and beyond.
“Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.“
While we unfortunately may not be able to move to Paris right now (or for some, want to), we can seek and make a change in our routine, setting, media consumption, etc. that will help us to breathe, gain perspective, and continue the fight with integrity.
“You’ve got to rattle your cage door. You’ve got to let them know that you’re in there, and that you want out. Make noise. Cause trouble. You may not win right away, but you’ll sure have a lot more fun.”
I don’t know about you, but I spent this past week mourning, listening, learning, contemplating, dissecting, introspecting, trying, acting, and ultimately, surrendering.
I seriously questioned whether my voice even deserves a place in the world right now when the voices of Black people, and Black women especially, are so much more critically-needed than my own.
Ultimately, I decided that writing is better than remaining silent, even if the writing is of a privileged white woman, as long as it attempts to further the cause of racial equality in some way.
Please note: I’m not so delusional to think my little blog is a platform of any real significance, but it’s the only one I have. And I’m also not so self righteous to believe my words could make a meaningful difference for anyone, much less a group of people who have been oppressed and discriminated against and subjugated and abused and terrorized and neglected and gaslighted for centuries.
But if something I write here can help, even in the most minute of ways, then I think it’s the very least I could do. And only as a first small step.
The protests and other events of this week gave rise to a steady stream of thoughts and metaphors that could be useful to share here. But because I want to use this post primarily to highlight the purpose-driven life of an activist whose story is much more impactful and inspiring than my own, I’m just going to share just one.
Have you ever been in an argument where you felt like the other person wasn’t really listening to anything you were saying? And during one of those arguments, has the other person ever tried to tell you how you should feel, or said, either directly or indirectly, that you’re wrong to feel the way that you do? Or maybe you’ve been in a fight where the other person said you were “overreacting?”
As someone who has been married for almost eight years and had longterm relationships before that, I cannot imagine this to be a completely foreign experience for any adult. (If you have not, then please share below what your secret is for all of us.)
If you can, try to think back to a particularly disheartening example of one of these arguments from your life. Now just notice how it makes you feel to relive it.
I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty pissed off right now. In fact, if I allow myself to recall every detail of a particularly painful fight where I felt misunderstood, alienated, unloved, and isolated, I start to get downright angry. Or, as Glennon Doyle would say, “Filled with white-hot rage.” In the moment, I might have described my feelings as sad or self-critical, but not anymore. While hurt and disappointment fades, fury can burn and smolder for years.
If this is how I react to one encounter that made me feel misunderstood or condescended to, then how could I even begin to think that I should know how someone who experienced degrees of this throughout his or her life should respond to the culmination of such attacks, especially when the consequences are so much more dire?
“You can’t tell me how to feel.” Have you ever said that during a fight? I know I have. And even though the other person probably would have done anything to move past the argument, it’s not that easy. It’s never that easy when it’s something that feels so personal, is it? It wasn’t until I felt completely heard, understood, and validated that I was willing to move on and talk about anything else.
And just as in a longterm relationship where the source of conflict is largely not either person’s fault, because it stems mostly from differences in how you were raised and what is considered “normal” in your family, racism is also generally not a personal fault. Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, explained it eloquently by saying that it’s like we’ve been standing in the rain, and until someone hands us an umbrella, we don’t even know that we’re wet.
As Kendi states, “It’s very difficult to grow up in a country or even a world that’s constantly raining racist ideas on your head and to never get wet. That’s how hard it is, essentially, to never consume any racist ideas, and so the first step is admitting that.” So, the first step is to admit that we all have had racist ideas or supported racist policies simply because we’ve been showered with racism our entire lives.
Once you’ve received the umbrella, though, how do you gracefully shed your soaked clothing and take positive action towards becoming an anti-racist, especially when you’re someone whose sense of self-worth has historically come from pleasing others by doing the “right thing”?
This is a question whose ultimate answer will take years to stumble through, but perhaps in addition to Kendi’s book, we can take helpful cues from this week’s purpose-driven life on how to move forward towards a better, more liberated future for everyone. Even if our attempts are unintentionally imperfect.
Florynce “Flo” Kennedy was an activist, lawyer, civil rights advocate, and feminist. She was an unabashed, proud Black woman who never shied away from speaking her mind and never felt compelled to adhere to anyone else’s ideals or expectations–especially when they belonged to “the establishment.”
What can we learn from Flo Kennedy about becoming part of the solution for equality and finding your purpose along the way? Let’s examine her exuberant life together.
Florynce Kennedy was born in 1916 in Kanas City, Missouri as the second of five daughters. She grew up in a mostly white neighborhood where her family was a target of the local Ku Klux Klan. In spite of what must have been constant fear, Kennedy described fond memories of her childhood and the support she received from her parents saying, “My parents gave us a fantastic sense of security and worth. By the time the bigots got around to telling us that we were nobody, we already knew we were somebody.”
Kennedy graduated high school at the top of her class and went on to try different vocations, including opening a hat shop and operating elevators. Around that time, though, the first spark of passion for activism ignited in her. After a local Coca-Cola bottling company refused to hire Black truck drivers, Kennedy organized a successful boycott of their products.
Kennedy’s mother tragically passed away a few years later, and she reacted by moving to New York City to began a new life in Harlem. Once she was in NYC, Kennedy began attending Columbia University. Although she excelled in academics, she was never truly passionate about her studies. As she said, “I really didn’t come [to New York] to go to school, but the schools were [t]here, so I went.” However, she did hone her persuasive writing skills and explored new ideas for social justice there. In a sociology course, Kennedy wrote a paper comparing race and gender issues with the hope that it could help build an alliance between feminists and Black activists, an idea that was central to her later work.
After college, Kennedy applied to law school at Columbia but was rejected. When she contacted the associate dean, he assured her that she was rejected was because she was a woman, and not because she was Black. Without hesitating, Kennedy requested a meeting with him and threatened to sue the school. Because she acted on her outrage and challenged the system, Kennedy was admitted as the only Black woman in her class.
After graduating from Columbia Law in 1951, Kennedy began her career as an attorney. She opened her own firm by 1954, and in 1956 she partnered with another attorney who represented Billie Holiday. This ultimately led to Kennedy representing the estates of both Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.
Although her early cases primarily involved family law and criminal defense, an incident in 1965 caused Kennedy to change course and veer back towards her calling as a civil rights advocate. One evening when she was walking home to her apartment on East 48th Street, Kennedy was stopped by the police. They could not believe that a Black woman lived in that neighborhood, and so they arrested her on suspicion of a crime. Incensed, Kennedy decided as a result of this experience to shift her focus and concentrate on fighting racism and discrimination.
“Freedom is like taking a bath: You got to keep doing it every day.”
Consequently, Kennedy took on more cases involving civil and women’s rights, and in her spare time she embarked on other activist efforts, including hosting a Media Workshop where participants learned how to challenge the media and use intersectionality, or advocating for multiple human rights issues, to further all causes. She picketed and lobbied media companies when they poorly represented Black people, and she threatened to boycott major retail companies if they failed to include Black people in their ads. Kennedy also represented prominent Black activists, including H. Rap Brown, Assata Shakur, and the Black Panthers, and she defended radical feminist Valerie Solanas when she was charged with the attempted murder of Andy Warhol. Towards the end of the decade, Kennedy helped to lead a Miss America protest against the exploitation of women, and she represented all of protestors who were arrested there.
In the 1970s, Kennedy expanded her horizons and solidified her reputation as a no-holds-barred activist with a wicked sense of humor. She began acting in films and television, and she even performed alongside Morgan Freeman in the 1971 film, Who Says I Can’t Ride a Rainbow. Kennedy also embarked on a lecture tour with Gloria Steinem around the country, employing her intersectionality strategy. When asked the common question men posed to feminists at that time, “Are you lesbians?” Kennedy would respond, “Are you my alternative?”
In the early 70s, Kennedy also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and the National Black Feminist Organization. As a prominent feminist, she advocated for abortion rights by co-authoring the book, Abortion Rap, filing tax evasion charges against the Catholic Church on the grounds that its anti-abortion campaign violated the First Amendment, and even working on the NY class action lawsuit that contributed to the later Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion.
Far more than just a standout activist, attorney, and speaker, Kennedy was a vibrant Black woman who lived her life out loud and made an impression on everyone around her. She was known to sport her signature cowboy hat, pink sunglasses, and “Daffy Duck” false eyelashes no matter the venue and without a care for what others thought of her. Kennedy also hosted gatherings in her NYC apartment and in her home on Fire Island to bring activists and thought leaders together at all hours of the day and night. And her sense of humor could not be matched. Once when addressing the fact that there were no women’s bathrooms at Harvard University, Kennedy led the women there to protest by pouring fake urine on the steps of those hallowed halls.
I’m just a loud-mouthed middle-aged colored lady…and a lot of people think I’m crazy. Maybe you do too, but I never stop to wonder why I’m not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren’t like me.”
Flo Kennedy used everything she had at her disposal to rail against the system that oppressed her: the courts, the media, speeches, protests, grassroots action, and a disarming sense of humor. She was a powerful, impactful figure not in spite of her reaction to discrimination, but precisely because of it. If Kennedy had not responded to her rejection from Columbia law by demanding a meeting and threatening a lawsuit, she never would have had critical legal tools at her disposal. And if she reacted to being arrested in her NYC neighborhood by simmering politely, she could never had led the charge that influenced modern activists like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, founders of the Black Lives Matter movement.
And so, the greatest lesson I think we can take from Flo Kennedy is one she offered us directly, in a way that only she could: “The biggest sin is sitting on your ass.”
While we as individuals might not have done anything intentionally to perpetuate the oppression that Kennedy and so many Black people, people of color, and indigenous people have historically faced and continue to face in America, we can choose to take actions going forward that are not only “not racist,” but “anti-racist”. We can look at our own lives and determine how we can help support these human rights, whether that’s by raising awareness, donating financially, volunteering time, taking a stand, emotionally supporting those on the front line, or some other tangible action.
“When a system of oppression has become institutionalized, it is unnecessary for individuals to be oppressive”
And in terms of finding your purpose? Well, I also think Kennedy said it best when she said, “I’m going to do what I want, and I haven’t got time for anything else.” Her attitude of indifference towards the expectations and decorum of others was vital to her purpose of advocating for the rights of Black Americans and women using her own unique flair.
Similarly, I think we all can take a page from Kennedy’s book both in how we work toward becoming allies and in how we fight to find and live our purpose. The opinions of others who don’t understand or are not sympathetic should not distract or prevent us from taking the steps we know to be right.
“You can’t dump one cup of sugar into the ocean and expect to get syrup. If everybody sweetened her own cup of water, then things would begin to change.”
And now, here are a few other quotes from Flo Kennedy that are too good not to share:
“I approve of anyone wearing what the establishment says you must not wear.”
“It’s interesting to speculate how it developed that in two of the most anti-feminist institutions, the church and the law court, the men are wearing the dresses.”
“Any woman who still thinks marriage is a fifty-fifty proposition is only proving that she doesn’t understand either men or percentages.”
“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
“When you want to get to the suites, start in the streets.”
“There are very few jobs that actually require a penis or vagina. All other jobs should be open to everybody.”
“[L]ife is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”
This was a funny week, wasn’t it? I almost felt like I should wait to write another post, because it seemed too soon to expect you to come back and spend more time here. If you’re reading this, then you must have come back anyway. Thank you so much for that.
I have to assume writing this feels premature because it was a short week, but having one less day also paradoxically made it feel simultaneously longer.
Does that make any sense at all?
I think my sister put it best on Thursday when she said, “I kept waking up feeling like the week should already be over. Tuesday felt like it should be Thursday. Then Wednesday felt like it should be Thursday. I’m so glad tomorrow’s finally Friday.”
Even though her work schedule is much more intense than mine right now, I could still completely relate to her description. I’m writing this on Friday, and with the week pretty much over it seemed quick, but living it day-to-day felt like an unexpected slog.
I imagine the “unexpected” part of the equation is the variable to blame for this feeling of relativity. I don’t know about you, but when I know I will be working more days or longer hours in an upcoming week, each day somehow seems to evaporate and drift away effortlessly. But when I’m entering into the week knowing it’s shorter and therefore should logically feel faster, time surprises me. It ironically feels glacial instead, so that moving past simple everyday challenges feels like wading through molasses.
And then, after enduring just four days of distracted work, do I thoroughly enjoy the free time I’ve been waiting so impatiently for? I’m not sure that I do, actually.
I’m definitely someone who appreciates anything more when I’m forced to wait for it. The anticipation becomes infinitely more frustrating as it stretches out over time, but it also makes the gratitude exponentially greater once the thing I’ve been waiting for finally comes to fruition.
My favorite example of this relates to (you guessed it) my dog, Arthur. When I was living in DC as a law student and young professional, I was dying to get a dog. I grew up with a sweet, smallish black lab named Sammi, whom we named after the then-famous country musician (in our house, anyway), Sammy Kershaw. Even though she clearly favored my older brother, whined at the dinner table every night because he snuck her food from it, and embarrassed us all by coughing and snorting like we were trying to kill her whenever we actually leashed her for a walk (we lived on three acres, so she was accustomed to much more freedom for her bathroom breaks), Sammie was the best canine companion we could have wanted.
Sammi passed away when I was in college after a long, happy life (aside from that year I wanted a horse and resorted to pretending she was one, anyway). After she was gone I longed for another dog, but my now-husband, then-boyfriend wisely advised against it. We were living in a tuna can of an apartment in Capitol Hill, and it would have been unfair to leave a dog there while both of us worked long hours and had a much more active social life than now (and even before quarantine).
Although I knew it wasn’t the right time, I was also sure it would happen eventually. My parents and husband can attest to this, but I have a history of being relentless when it comes to things I desperately want, especially when my desire outlasts the time in which someone else expects it to fade.
Sure enough, when we moved to Tampa eight years ago, I pounced on my opportunity. We adopted Arthur from the Humane Society, and he became an inexplicably integral part of our lives. To this day, I honestly don’t mind bagging his unmentionables, cleaning up his various fluids (just yesterday he ate some grass and threw up on our cream carpet), or taking the time to walk him twice a day, even in the swampy Florida summer. And I know that’s party because I’m still so jazzed just to have a furry little creature waiting for me when I come home.
Would it irk me more to scrub his vomit if I had my way and adopted him years earlier? I’m convinced I have an especially severe aversion to throw up, so I could see that being the case. I would still love him, but I don’t think I would be as patient with the downsides of dog ownership.
Similarly, I think when I’m forced to sit and wait longer for the weekend, I tend to consciously appreciate it more once it arrives. After a long, hard week, I’m more aware of the sense of freedom the weekend offers, and I savor the lightness that reappears, blotting out the dark clouds of weekday pressures.
In a way, a four-day week offers us a deceptive sense of optimism. It appears more promising at the start, but that positive outlook sours quickly when our expectations for time to blitz by are dashed by the reality of sluggish, unending days.
Sure, our tolerance for annoyance or misery seems proportionate to its duration. That’s why I was relatively unfazed by the events of last weekend. But when we approach something more mundane and cyclical–like a workweek–could it harm us to live in a “working for the weekend” mindset, even for a shorter amount of time? If so, then could the patient (and perhaps resigned) mindset we subconsciously slide into during a normal week actually be better for us overall?
A week is also still a really short period of time, unless you’re a fifth-grader whose birthday is a week away. But what happens when finding your purpose requires more than just short-term or limited patience? What if you were forced to endure decades of waiting before you could finally express and share your unique gifts with the world?
This week, we will explore that idea as we examine the life of Anna Mary Robertson Moses, an American painter and cultural icon better known by her nickname, Grandma Moses.
Anna Mary Robertson Moses was born in 1860 in rural upstate New York. Her father was a farmer who operated a flax mill, and her mother raised Moses and her nine brothers and sisters. She attended a one-room school when she was young, but at age 12, Moses left her home to earn money for her family by cooking, sewing, and performing other household chores for wealthier families.
Moses showed artistic talent early on, but she had no formal outlet or training available to her. As a child, she painted landscapes using lemon and grape juice and used ground ochre, grass, flour paste, and sawdust to create art. Her father bought paper for her and her brothers for drawing, and one of her employers even bought her chalk and wax crayons after taking notice of her interest in art prints. However, in the life of a domestic worker, painting and drawing were treated as a hobbies at best.
“I was quite small, my father would get me and my brothers white paper by the sheet. He liked to see us draw pictures, it was a penny a sheet and lasted longer than candy.”
After working in various homes for 15 years, she met Thomas Moses on a farm where they both were employed. When Moses was 27, she married Thomas and moved to a small home with him in Virginia. They spent the subsequent decades working on farms nearby, and Moses made potato chips and churned butter for additional income. During that time, she gave birth to ten children, but only five of them survived infancy.
After saving enough money, Moses and her husband eventually bought a farm and lived off of their own land for several years. She then lost her husband when he passed away from a heart attack at the age of 67. Moses continued operating the farm for nine more years with the help of her son, but in 1936 at the age of 76 she retired to live with one of her daughters.
Moses became an avid embroiderer in her 70s, but at the age of 76 she developed arthritis that made it too painful for her to continue. At her sister’s suggestion, she then took up painting as her primary focus, creating landscapes that depicted the rural scenes from her childhood. Although her pieces were initially very simple, after three decades in which she painted over 1,500 works, her compositions became much more complex.
Moses initially sold her paintings for $3 to $5, but after only a few years, her work was highly regarded and sought after. Just two years after she began painting full-time, a visiting art collector saw her paintings in a local drugstore and purchased them all. The next year, her art was featured in an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In 1940 at the age of 80, Moses held her first solo exhibit at the Galerie St. Etienne in NYC before showing casing her work at Gimbel’s Department Store and then at the Whyte Gallery in Washington, D.C. Over the next 20 years, her paintings were shown across the United States and Europe.
In the late 1940s when she was nearing 90, Moses became the darling of modern American folk art, receiving accolades and awards from a variety of institutions and publications. She received the Women’s National Press Club trophy Award for outstanding accomplishment in art from President Truman, was awarded two honorary doctoral degrees, and was named a “Young Woman of the Year” by Mademoiselle magazine. She was even featured on the cover of Time magazine in a holiday-themed issue at the age of 93.
Grandma Moses continued painting until she passed away in 1961 at the age of 101. Her works were featured in over 160 exhibitions, and more than 48 million Christmas cards featuring her work have been sold. Her paintings have hung in Paris’ Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among many others.
Because of the circumstances of her life, Grandma Moses was not in a position to find her purpose of creating and sharing the beauty of a rural existence with the world until she had already lived several lives, first as a farmworker, then as a mother, and finally as a widow farmer. The beat of her artistic purpose pounded softly in the background throughout those decades, though, revealing itself from time to time through hobbies deemed worthwhile by her culture, including embroidery, quilting, and home decor.
It was only after she worked herself literally to the point of painful arthritis that she felt free to fully express her gifts and talents. The wait was long and arduous, but the unexpected rewards of finally realizing her dharma seemed to make Moses even more awestruck and grateful for everything in her life.
“I look back on my life like a good day’s work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered.”
So, what can we learn from Grandma Moses and her story of finding her purpose in her fourth act? I think the primary takeaway is that if we haven’t yet discovered our purpose, we should not lose hope. Just as with Grandma Moses, our purpose also beats within us always, waiting for us to seek and follow it when the time is right.
Doing what we must to make ends meet and provide for our families (or dogs) is not shameful; in fact, Grandma Moses would say we are acting responsibly. By taking care of the bottom levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs first, we are ensuring that once we do reach the upper tiers, we are similarly positioned to channel our energy into the most full-fledged, radiant, and relentless expression of our purpose.
Of course, today is not the late 1800s, and we are fortunate that there are now seemingly endless ways to earn a living. So, if we are able to find and pursue our purpose in a financially viable way, I think we can honor Grandma Moses’ decades-long repression of her purpose by fully engaging in and living ours now.
Whether we must continue our fight for several years or emerge victorious in the near future, I believe each of us will eventually find our purpose and finally experience the ethereal fulfillment of unequivocal certainty and utility. And maybe, just maybe, we will then fully savor the experiences and better tolerate the inevitable downsides, all because we have been forced to wait longer than we would have liked.
“I don’t mind a good fight. For reasons known only to God, I’ve had quite a few tough ones in my life. But I learned an important lesson along the way: In the end, it matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test.”
– Senator John McCain
Hi, how was your weekend?
I don’t know about you, but for me there was something deliciously normal about celebrating Memorial Day Weekend. Sure, it wasn’t really normal (far from it, in fact), but the simple act of celebrating a national holiday was for me a welcome reprieve from the infinite loop that is post-COVID life.
And it seemed especially fitting that the holiday to celebrate was Memorial Day. What better time to honor those who died for our country than now, when life has slowed down and we are (hopefully) more appreciative of those things we took for granted only a few months ago?
That was the good that came from this weekend. Of course, the bad and the ugly couldn’t be avoided, in spite of my best-laid plans.
Last week, we decided at the last minute to get out of our house and rent a cabin in the Georgia mountains for the holiday weekend. We would practice all COVID-related precautions by minimizing highway stops through healthy dehydration, bringing everything we could possibly need to eat, and disinfecting all surfaces upon arrival. I found a rental that seemed perfect for us and our dog, Arthur, to relax and disconnect from an especially chaotic world. Great plan, right?
It seemed like it to me, anyway, and the ride up only boosted my confidence in our decision to get away. The eight-hour drive went smoothly thanks to a quarantine silver lining: no traffic. And because we knew we would lose cell service as we went farther into the mountains, we printed out directions to “Sleepy Hollow Cabin”. The 2000s-era exercise reminded me of using MapQuest back when I first started driving, and I was already excited about the prospect of a forced separation from my phone and all of its dopamine-producing apps.
As we rolled up the gravel road around 1 a.m., we finally came to a small wooden house with a quaint front porch surrounded by thick forest. A large, wooly German Shepherd ran up and began circling our truck, dancing in and out of the headlights. It was late and we were tired, but we couldn’t be imagining that dog, right? And what’s that car doing parked in the single space in front of the porch?
To spare you the contact stress of the events that ensued, I’ll just say that an error on the booking website meant that we would not be staying in “Sleepy Hollow” that night, or anytime that weekend. If I’m being perfectly honest, I should have caught the error by checking before we took the eight-hour drive, or by checking when I printed out the rental agreement, or even by taking a longer glance at the confirmation email. But alas, I did not, and we found ourselves in a small German-themed mountain town searching for a pet-friendly place to stay at 1:30 a.m.
Fortunately, my extremely competent husband pleaded our way into a Holiday Inn Express, and after carrying all of the food inside to shove tetris-style into the mini fridge, we all passed out after 2 a.m.
Although I kept it together (for the most part, anyway), I have to admit that before going to sleep and upon waking up, I was distraught. How could I have made such a terrible mistake? Can we salvage this weekend and find another place to stay? Or, more likely, will everything be booked so that our only choice will be to pack everything back up and spend the day driving home?
While my husband made lemonade by waking early and cycling the mountainous route he had planned all week, I took Arthur for a walk outside of the hotel. I headed towards a wooded area, thinking that we both would benefit from some time surrounded by trees.
Groggy and exhausted, we both seemed to move in a zombie-like state. Once we got there, I realized it wasn’t a forest at all–the trees we saw were lining a river. There were a few fly fishermen sleepily rambling from their trucks to the riverbed, but otherwise the water and surroundings were empty. Happily, Arthur and I walked in solitude upstream along an earthy path, breathing in the verdant mountain air and exhaling the stresses of the hours before. Staring into the clear rushing freshwater, I knew we needed to find a way to stay and soak up as much of this feeling as possible.
Back at the Holiday Inn, I got on the horn and went to work. After searching and calling and begging, I found a place that had one small cabin left, and it was just four miles away. Did the website look like it hadn’t been updated since 2003? Maybe. And did it also look fairly outdated and corny as a result? Without a doubt. But the woman who owned the cabins sounded trustworthy and kind, and perhaps most important, they allowed dogs. Arthur was welcome, the photos didn’t look too awful, and the reviews were positive, so that was good enough for me.
It wasn’t what we had planned, but the cabin had what we needed: a clean shower, somewhat comfortable bed, mini-fridge, grill and campfire, plus some other things we could have done without. Would we choose to go to this cabin again? Probably not, if another option were available. But especially after my original plans blew up before me, I was grateful to have this cabin as Plan B. It was wonderfully refreshing to disconnect from technology and reconnect with the natural world, and as there was no wifi and limited cell service, this cabin certainly made sure we did plenty of both.
While it was a sufficiently dramatic weekend for all involved, it was only a long weekend. Most of us can handle an unexpected downturn when we know it will be short-lived. But what happens when the plans aren’t just for a weekend, but for your entire life and career? Can we pick up the pieces and find a suitable alternative, maybe one that is better for us, even if we wouldn’t have chosen it for ourselves?
This week, our purpose-driven life answers this question and also offers irrefutable evidence that we have it within ourselves to remain resilient, regardless of how long-lasting or how catastrophic the wrench in our plans appears to be. Can the incredible life of Senator John McCain help us to be more resilient both in this pandemic and in our fight to fight our purpose? Let’s find out.
John McCain was born at a U.S. Naval Air Station on the Panama Canal in 1936. His father was a naval officer who, like McCain’s grandfather, had graduated from the Naval Academy. With his father taking various Naval postings, McCain moved frequently throughout his childhood, attending 20 different schools before graduating high school.
After high school, McCain followed the path set by his father and grandfather by attending the Naval Academy. He was a decent student with a high IQ, but his habit of challenging authority lead him to graduate with a class ranking of 894 out of 899. Upon graduation, McCain followed what he assumed to be his calling by joining the Navy. He trained for two years at Pensacola to become a naval aviator and then received his first assignment flying ground-attack aircraft aboard carriers in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. He was known initially as an average pilot who could be reckless at times, as he crashed and flew into power lines during missions in the 1960s.
In 1967, McCain requested his first combat assignment, which brought him into the Vietnam War. After narrowly escaping an electrical fire that exploded his aircraft carrier, injuring him and many others, McCain immediately volunteered for another assignment. He joined the USS Oriskany and began executing bombing missions in North Vietnam. During one of his missions, McCain’s aircraft was shot down by a missile, and he was taken prisoner of war.
McCain broke both of his arms and his legs when he parachuted into a lake in North Vietnam, and he almost drowned before being captured. His enemies interrogated, beat, and tortured him. After receiving some medical attention once his captors learned that his father was then an admiral, McCain was transported to another camp and then left in solitary confinement for two years.
At that point, his grandfather was commander of all American forces in Vietnam, so the Vietnamese offered to release McCain as a propaganda stunt. However, McCain refused to go home, saying that he would only do so if every other soldier captured before him could as well. He was brutalized even more as a result of this defiance, and the torture brought McCain to the brink of suicide. He persisted, however, and survived over five years of imprisonment before returning to the U.S. in 1973.
“We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity for action despite our fears.”
After leaving Vietnam, McCain still had aspirations of a decorated career in the Navy. He completed extensive rehabilitation and soon became Commanding Officer of a Florida training squadron. He was successful in that role and went on to serve as the Navy’s liaison to the Senate. In the years that followed, however, McCain realized that his dream of following family tradition by becoming an admiral would not be in the cards for him. Consequently, McCain decided to retire from the Navy as a captain in 1981.
Losing the future he had been working towards his entire life could have completely derailed McCain, but instead he pivoted and dove into a new arena. After his retirement, he moved to Arizona and dedicated himself to politics. McCain quickly became a U.S. Representative before running for Senate and subsequently spending 31 years as a Senator of Arizona.
During his tenure, McCain unsuccessfully ran for President twice, but he showed resilience in serving unapologetically in the Senate after each loss. He also prided himself on voting his conscience and employing a more bipartisan style of politicking, which became more scarce as the years went by.
In 2017, McCain was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer during his sixth term. He underwent brain surgery and then returned to the Senate just two weeks later in order to vote against a bill that he did not believe in, but his party favored. There, he used his platform to speak against the partisanship and party-line voting that had become commonplace in Washington. In 2018 after the cancer treatments failed, John McCain passed away at the age of 82.
Regardless of your opinions of his politics, most everyone would agree that John McCain left a legacy that will endure on for years to come. But what can we learn from McCain’s fight to find his purpose as a maverick who uses defiance to serve the greater good?
His resilience and ability to adapt were certainly instrumental throughout his journey, but I think it goes deeper than that. I believe the most compelling message from John McCain’s life is that dwelling on our painful past or on our unrealized dreams for the future will not enable us to find and live our true purpose.
McCain endured unimaginable physical, emotional, and mental pain during his imprisonment. He also suffered blows to his ego in retiring without becoming an admiral and in failing to become president, both dreams he was desperate to attain. And yet, by gritting through the traumatic experiences and public failures without holding onto bitterness towards his captors, resentment towards his political adversaries, or disappointment for a future that never materialized, he was able to achieve what we all seek: a fulfilling, purpose-driven life.
“What God and good luck provide we must accept with gratitude. Our time is our time. It’s up to us to make the most of it, make it amount to more than the sum of our days.”
While I would never try to compare staying in a one-bedroom cabin for two nights to spending five years as a prisoner of war or running alongside Sarah Palin, I do think that how we handle everyday disappointments and setbacks can help us build our own resilience and grit. Hopefully, none of us will ever need these skills to the degree that John McCain demonstrated, but I have to believe if we can build them, they will also be instrumental as we follow our own path to find our purpose.
“Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be Powerful.”
When you first glimpsed this photo, was there even a split second where you weren’t sure if it was a dolphin or a shark?
I’ll admit that when I first saw this guy during my morning run, I felt a jolt of fear at the thought that it could be a shark, even though I know how far-fetched it would be to find one swimming in Tampa Bay.
I don’t know about you, but I always have this moment of panic when I see a fin in the water. Living near the coast of Florida where dolphins are pretty ubiquitous, you can imagine how often this happens. And yet, I still think about sharks every single time I see a benign dolphin surfacing for air. Can I blame Jaws? I guess so, but I’m also fairly certain I’ve never watched the movie in its entirety. To be honest, just seeing the cover at my local Blockbuster when I was little was enough to give me nightmares for days.
After the irrational fear of sharp-toothed sea monsters dissipated, I stood in awe of this dolphin and another one down the way. They both seemed to be following the same loops, like a pre-set track. First they darted directly toward the seawall, then they turned on a dime to continue jetting along before pivoting abruptly back out into the open water. After watching a few runs through the course, I finally realized they weren’t taking joy rides; these dolphins were hunting.
The intelligent mammals were tracking and the corralling fish into the shallower, rocky water near the wall, then chasing them down the side until they could snatch one up to devour just beneath the surface. I know this because right after I took the photo below, I saw the dolphin careen out with a fish dangling in its mouth. Unfortunately, my timing with the camera wasn’t as precise as their hunting skills, so I wasn’t able to capture that thrilling moment.
After enjoying a nature show in the bay, I finally stopped using the dolphins as an excuse to rest and began running home. Almost immediately, though, a large seabird flying overhead caught my attention. It was a majestic osprey, its white and gray checkered wings spread wide as it soared through the air. Its talons were grasping a sizable fish with scales that shined brilliantly, like individual tiny mirrors flashing in the bright blue sky. Apparently, everyone was hunting that morning.
Although I admittedly tend to look for signs in the world and often feel the need to investigate the significance of those signs, I didn’t need to do any questionable Googling this time. The universe/God/whatever was very clear in its message to me that morning: it’s time to hunt. Or, in other words more applicable to those at the top of the food chain, the time has come to take action.
We all face personal and collective fears, and they both feel especially acute right now. As different parts of the country start to re-open, it feels like we can no longer hide behind the excuses and “wait and see” mindset that sheltering in place offered us. We were being good citizens by deliberately choosing inaction to flatten the curve, not because we were paralyzed with fear, right?
But now, as the reality sets in that sitting still and hunkering down won’t continue to be an option in the near future, the real fear starts to descend. Change is never easy, but widespread change fatigue presents a unique new hurdle that it seems we all will be dealing with for the foreseeable future. So, how do we handle this?
Seeing the dolphin laughing as it snagged a fish and the osprey happily carrying the fruits of its morning hunt made me believe that the answer is action. During different parts of this quarantine, it felt like quiet reflection and patience would be most beneficial, but now the universe seems to be telling me that I need to carpe diem and put all of my effort into traversing the most discernible path available.
In trying to take action and feel our way through this fog we all find ourselves in, where can we look for guidance to not only survive our constantly changing world, but also find our purpose in the midst it?
The first person who came to mind for me is someone brave, someone who has withstood more personal and public challenges than most will ever have to face in their lives. Regardless of your political leanings, you probably know Michelle Obama as a tenacious, hardworking person. However, if you don’t know her backstory yet, you might not know how unexpected her life in politics was for her, and how she persevered in spite of her reluctance and unwanted public scrutiny. This week, we will examine how Michelle Obama’s fight to find her purpose may help us take action to find ours.
Michelle Obama was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, where her father worked for the city water plant and her mother was a homemaker-turned-secretary. They lived in the upstairs apartment of a duplex owned by her great aunt, a stern woman who gave Obama piano lessons as a child.
When Obama was young, she aspired to be a pediatrician. In her captivating memoir, Becoming (which I understand is now the basis of a Netflix special), she says that this desire was mostly motivated by the positive reinforcement she received when she told adults that she was going to be pediatrician when she grew up. However, once she was in school, Obama was convinced her math and science aptitudes weren’t high enough to pursue a career in medicine, so she changed her course.
Around that time, her father’s health began to suffer, and he began walking with a limp. This was the first sign of what would later be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system. In the years that followed, Obama witnessed the slow, steady physical decline of her hardworking father, a man whose utility was a great source of pride.
Her family had no idea when the pain started, because her father did not show his discomfort until his body gave him no choice. He continued working at the plant even after the disease made it nearly impossible for him to move without severe pain. Throughout her childhood, Obama bore witness to her father’s dogged determination to move forward in spite of inevitable fears about his health, his ability to support his family, and his future.
After middle school, Obama attended the first magnate high school in Chicago, which required a three-hour round-trip commute and placed her in competition with many of the most impressive students in the city. When faced with these new challenges, she responded by working harder and longer to prove to herself and everyone around her that she was good enough to be there. It paid off, as she followed in her older brother’s footsteps by being accepted to Princeton.
At Princeton, Obama experienced blatant racism, an unfamiliar culture of elitism, and a nagging fear that she was accepted on her brother’s reputation instead of her own merits. Nevertheless, she responded to these fear-inducing situations with action, studying diligently and excelling in her classes as a result.
Once she neared the completion of her degree in sociology, Obama wasn’t thinking of her purpose and how to best fulfill it. Instead, she says, “I was a box-checker–marching to the resolute beat of effort/result, effort/result–a devoted follower of the established path…I wasn’t particularly imaginative in how I thought about the future, which is another way of saying I was already thinking about law school.”
“You live…by the code of effort/result, and with it you keep achieving until you think you know the answers to all the questions–including the most important one. Am I good enough? Yes, in fact I am.“
Obama was then accepted to Harvard Law School. As she explained in her memoir, “I was driven not by logic but by some reflexive wish for other people’s approval…Professors, relatives, random people I met, asked what was next for me, and when I mentioned I was bound for law school–Harvard Law School, as it turned out–the affirmation was overwhelming.”
Obama was also successful in law school, earning high marks and receiving an offer to join a high-end firm upon graduation. At 25, she found herself making more money than her parents ever made with all the perks of a corporate law career: an assistant, a fancy car, and Armani suits. And yet, something felt wrong. Obama wasn’t passionate about her work, and she knew she was not called to it like her colleagues seemed to be.
“This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the…my-isn’t-that-impressive path–and keep you there for a long time.”
After working for the firm a few years (during which time she met her future husband, who was a summer associate at the time), Obama was miserable. One memorable day, she shared with her mother, a woman who had worked the same job for nine years to pay for her daughter’s college tuition, that she was extremely unhappy with her job and chosen career. Her mother urged her to “make…money first and worry about [her] happiness later.”
Obama took her mother’s advice and refrained from taking any kind of drastic action, and six months later she unsurprisingly remained unfulfilled. Around that time, she also finally convinced her father to see a doctor after his throat began to swell. Shortly after he saw the doctor, her father suffered a heart attack and passed away. Obama was only 27 years old when she lost her father.
Soon after her father passed, she lost a close friend to cancer. Obama decided then that life was too short to remain in a state of misery, and she began reaching out to all of her contacts. Eventually, she landed a job working for a nonprofit. Obama found this new career path rewarding, as she became even closer to her community and felt like she was making a difference in her hometown. In the process, she also gained invaluable experience in local politics.
She and Barack were married a year after her father’s passing. Although she knew he had loftier aspirations than a simple career in law, Obama didn’t fully appreciate the extent of Barack’s dreams until much later on. While she gained her footing in a nonprofit executive role, he was still teaching and practicing civil rights law. His volunteer work for an organization that urged under-represented people to vote garnered attention from state politicians, who asked him to run for a seat in Congress.
Obama wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of her husband becoming a politician. As she wrote, “I didn’t much appreciate politicians and therefore didn’t relish the idea of my husband becoming one.” She was a reluctant to become a politician’s wife in principal, and she certainly didn’t see it as a way to pursue her own purpose.
Of course, we know that Barack pursuing his own purpose through politics meant that she did become a politician’s wife. However, Obama continued on in her nonprofit career even as her husband quickly climbed the political ladder. She took a position with the University of Chicago that focused on breaking down barriers and connecting students more closely with the local community, something she was thrilled to work towards. However, during this time, Obama also began wondering about her life’s purpose again: “[S]ome of the old questions about who I was and what I wanted to be in my life were starting to drift in again, fixing themselves at the forefront of my mind.”
At this point, she and Barack were trying to start a family, and it “wasn’t going well.” Obama endured a miscarriage before she and Barack decided to pursue in-vitro fertilization. Barack was already in the throes of politics with a jam-packed schedule, so Obama had to inject the medications and show up for monitoring appointments by herself. She described the fear and frustration of the entire process and recalled a moment where she questioned her path: “Did I want it? Yes, I wanted it so much. And with this, I hoisted the needle and sank it into my flesh.” Even in her personal life, Obama approached obstacles with an enviable resolve.
“Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”
We pretty much know how Obama’s story proceeds from there. She becomes First Lady of the United States (the first FLOTUS of color) and uses her office to create programs aimed at improving the health and nutrition of children. She also becomes a political force of nature in her own right, prompting calls for her to run for president after her husband’s second term ended. And now, Obama uses her voice and resources to advocate for the causes she cares about most, which primarily focus on bettering the lives of young women.
Michelle Obama’s purpose of empowering others, especially young women and girls, by serving as a role model could not have been fulfilled had she remained paralyzed by the many fears in her life: fears about not being good enough because of her experiences in school, fears about mortality because of her father’s illness, and fears about entering into politics because of her preconceived notions about politicians. Instead of sitting still and waiting for the answers to come to her, however, Obama took action and came to her own conclusions.
For this reason, I think the primary takeaway from Michelle Obama’s purpose-driven life is that at some point, you have to set your fears aside and move forward, even if the road you take isn’t exactly “right.”
Obama’s willingness to keep going was critical to finding and living her dharma, but she didn’t do so blindly. She coupled her perseverance with the bravery to change course when the road came to a dead end. We know now that those dead end roads gave her pivotal experiences and knowledge that were invaluable when she reached the “right” destination, but it took courage to adapt and purposefully change her path when it didn’t feel right to her.
So, the other lesson I think we can learn from her journey is that taking action and choosing a road doesn’t mean you must take it forever.
Even if we can’t see it now, I do think that our “dead end roads” will also somehow lead us to our “right” destinations. We just have to summon the courage to take steps forward, even when the fog is heavy and the road uncertain.