Typically, the new year is when we try to cut ties with our piteous ways and get on the path of higher living. But where are we supposed to find the motivation to last through January? The self-improvement industry depends upon most resolutions petering out year after year.
So how do we stretch our comfort zone and somehow still be kind and understanding? My latest tack is to find someone who inspires you and let yourself be pulled along in the wake of their example. The opposite of envy (a typical motivator in our culture) is admiration or appreciation. Let yourself see in someone else what it means to live bravely or creatively or with whatever quality resonates with you.
An exemplar for me is a man who has sizable physical limitations and chronic pain yet is a courageous advocate for others. Rev. Dr. William Barber is a pastor in North Carolina, perhaps best known as an organizer of “Moral Mondays,” a series of civil-rights protests that arose in response to widespread gerrymandering, transgender “bathroom bills,” and the general neglect of poor people in that state. Dr. Barber’s efforts helped lead to the ouster of the deeply unsympathetic governor who, among other things, had denied the expansion of Medicaid in a state in which twenty percent of the residence lacked health insurance. He has also taken up Martin Luther King Jr.’s final, and most controversial, cause: The Poor People’s Campaign, which seeks to confront racism, militarism, and poverty.
Dr. Barber is a hero to me because of his eloquence, achievements, and because he has ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritic condition that causes him chronic pain and has forced his forward-leaning posture. He leans forward because his neck and back and hips are fusing together. At times, he has been unable to walk and now, in his mid-fifties, shuffles through an incredibly active schedule with a cane.
In a recent profile in The New Yorker, Dr. Barber was asked how he deals with his condition, given his near constant speaking and travel. He told the reporter about the capability we all possess for generosity: once when he visited an encampment of homeless people, he was offered a chair by one of the women living there even though it was one of her few possessions.
His own suffering is fuel for his life’s work. “I first had put my own struggle in perspective. I had to turn my ankylosing into a testimony, in this sense: every time I’m fighting for healthcare, I’m reminded I have it. How many people are there that have this disease but don’t have healthcare? It gives you a sense of deep – not just sympathy but empathy, right?”
Dr. Barber pointed out that all the heroes of the Bible had some physical or mental challenge, that Harriet Tubman suffered from epilepsy, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the country for 13 years despite having been stricken with polio.
It would be quite easy to take the ambition and achievements of Dr. Barber and use it as further ammunition against oneself. Why don’t I do more? Why am I selfish? I bet he’s not watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel!
That’s not my intention, and, of course, I have thoughts like that too. But part of Dr. Barber’s teaching as shown not just in his words but in his shuffle from the car to the podium and the pulpit, is to keep moving. Don’t let self-critical thoughts be the final word. They don’t have permanency; they’re just thoughts. According to the central teachings of Buddhism, nothing is permanent – especially our time here.
My wish for 2020 is that we not wait till our ducks are in a row, until we are completely comfortable, before we reach out with generosity and support to others. The Alexander Technique does wonders for posture but perfect posture is never the goal; living fully is. As Dr. Barber stoops forward throughout his sermons and work on behalf of our most vulnerable neighbors, his embodiment is perfect.
Happy New Year to you and all.
One challenge: Whom do you admire? Listen to them, read about them, spend some time with their voice and outlook. See how that organically affects you as 2020 turns on.