When I first heard the news that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had died, I went into a depression. My normal optimism had fled and left me with feelings of despair.
During this time, I was preparing for an interview with Hersch Wilson who is a 30-year veteran volunteer firefighter in New Mexico and the author of a most brilliant book, Firefighter Zen: A Field Guide to Thriving in Tough Times.
As is often the case, the mysterious workings of the invisible world showed up with the right message at the perfect time. This is what I was reading.
“Keep Calm and Carry On” was first used on a poster at the beginning of World War II in England. It was designed to call out the best of the British at a time when it was thought a German invasion was imminent. The attack never came, the poster was never used, and it was lost to history until a copy surfaced in an obscure northern England bookstore. Since then, it has become iconic and often copied.
Firefighters, by training and experience, learn to be calm and carry on under often arduous circumstances.
As the phrase implies, this requires two abilities. The first is learning how to frame events, and the second is learning how to deal with stress in the moment.
Being calm doesn’t mean refusing to feel. It doesn’t mean foregoing joy or excitement or denying fear. Instead, it means taking life as it comes as serenely as possible.… Don’t overreact when things don’t go right.… Don’t get hijacked by anger…. This is a skill that improves our entire life.
I hope that you, like me, are comforted by these words.
Augmenting the thought that we must “carry on” has been by my participation in several antiracism groups. For the past several months I’ve been studying and delving into the culture of systemic racism in America and belong to several groups who meet regularly to have deep and authentic dialogue about racism. These groups are a mixture of White women and Black women.
Recently we were asked to look at the question: “What is it about racism that is hard for you right now?” We were encouraged to delve deep into our hearts and to be as transparent and candid as possible.
As I searched my heart, with great hesitancy, I realized and said that what is hard for me right now is to keep educating myself, to keep pressing on in researching and participating in the reality of the inequalities that exist in the landscape of which I am a part, to stay on track with energy and openness. As I’ve been immersing myself deeply and intensely in these conversations and researching, reading books, articles, listening to podcasts, watching movies about racism, watching TV series such as Shades of America hosted by W. Kamau Bell, and joining groups of whites and blacks for several months, my stamina and attention is flagging. I can feel my longing to turn away from this reality and return to my comfort zone.
In Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility she writes about the tendency of white people to flee discomfort rather than remain in it. This has opened my eyes to see more clearly the privilege to be comfortable in growing up with an economic structure that has given me a great advantage in society.
I can feel this tendency kicking in and I have to admit I want all this turmoil and injustice to be solved and over, receding in my rear-view mirror. What is hard for me right now is to stay on track with energy and openness. I can feel my longing to turn away from this reality and return to my comfort zone.
As I spoke this out loud to the group, I remembered the song my Joyful Noise Gospel Singers are about to record, Hold On Just A Little Bit Longer, Pray On Just A Little Bit Longer, Fight On Just A Little Bit Longer, Everything Gonna Be All Right. I’ve always associated this song to be about black people keeping their hopes up and marching on. But in the context of my wanting to return to the comfort that I’ve grown up with, I realize that this song is about me. I can no longer deny that blacks have been staying the course for over 400 years and, after a measly couple of months, I want to go back to my comfort zone. This song is reminding me to stay in the fight, keep up the momentum. This is not a single moment in history. It has been a long fight and I’m a bit late to the fray. However late I am, it’s an opportunity to join with those who have been staying the course for over four centuries.
I’m encouraging everyone to join or start a dialogue group between whites and blacks and other people of color in deep dialogue where there is trust and respect, where participants can be candid and tell the truth, encouraging one another to be part of turning the arc of history toward justice for all.
Now when I sing and record my part of Hold On, I’m doing it for myself because I need help to have the strength and stamina to contribute to a just society, to be useful in the on-going fight in creating one nation, under God, with liberty, and justice for all.
-Justine Willis Toms