This Elul assignment was a doozy. (That’s the official, academic term.) These last few months, I have not found it very easy to “rise up”. I have often found it much easier to “lie down”, or perhaps even “hide under”. On some days, the act of rising up out of bed might more accurately be described as a reluctant dragging, or a stooped stumble to the kitchen. Finding an equilibrium between constant rage and dismay (and action) on the one side, and numbness and withdrawal (and paralysis) on the other, has proven to be a rather elusive goal. I tend to ricochet between the two extremes, an unsatisfactory method of surviving, let alone thriving. Grief can be immobilizing. And I feel I cannot afford the luxury of grieving in the current state of our nation.
Representative John Robert Lewis’s death and the memorial events that followed were excellent reminders of his extraordinary life-long commitment to our country and to change. His history and legacy have become my catalyst, my source of strength and perseverance. He is what gives my spirit “wings of eagles”, even when my inclination is to be a Common Poorwill – a bird which, for self-preservation, enters a state of “torpor” (the actual, legitimate naturalist’s term for an abbreviated hibernation).
For 33 years in Congress, plus his years as an activist before then, John Robert Lewis did not give up hope. Nor did he give up on the actual work. Creating a better nation is all about the “doing.” “Democracy,” said Representative Lewis, “is not a state. It is an act.” And so he acted. With discipline. Repeatedly. His actions, and his relentless hope — his belief in the better angels of our nature — is what inspires and requires me to Rise Up. How can I possibly give up hope when John Lewis would not? And when I am tempted to do so, I am reminded what Michelle Goldberg wrote in her New York Times OpEd piece about Mr. Lewis’s legacy: “Hope is as much a practice, as a feeling.” As Goldberg says, iIt is not a disposition, but a discipline.
Representative Lewis’s life’s work echoed the themes of the High Holidays and the preparation leading up to them in the month of Elul. He repeatedly demonstrated remarkable resilience in all manner of experiences; he was all about healing our nation, and creating a sustainable movement towards a better version of ourselves by continuing to renew and reflect on the direction our country needs to take. He embodied the tenets of non-violent resistance; he performed teshuvah all the time.
That approach strikes me as very Jewish. I act not because I have hope all the time, but because I am practicing it. (Like Yoga, which you “practice.”) I act first and hope that the belief will come later. As our ancestors said at Mt. Sinai: Na’aseh v’nishmah. We will do, and [then] we will understand/hear.
When the air around me is filled with turbulence, as it certainly is now (and has been in Black, Indigenous, People-Of-Color communities for centuries), I look to the spirit of Mr. Lewis to raise my own spirits. Kelly Corrigan, in her book Lift, had her own reckoning with turbulence when talking with a hang-gliding friend.
“Basically,” he said, “You fly from thermal to thermal, looking for lift.”
“What’s a thermal?” … [H]e explained that a thermal is a column of hot air surrounded by turbulence.
“I assume you want to avoid turbulence.”
“No,” he said, “… Turbulence is the only way to get altitude, to get lift. Without it, the sky is just a big blue hole. Without turbulence, you sink.”
Turbulence is taking action; it is diving into the “doing”; it is John Lewis’s now-famous call to create “good trouble, necessary trouble”. I try not to spend too much time wondering whether my actions will make a difference and am, instead, working on ways to stay in the turbulence, to seek it out, to make some trouble, and use that turbulence to continue to climb, even with my wings of a Common Poorwill.