RBG, Gratitude and Good Work

Resisting the temptation to despair and looking for a savior

On Saturday morning, a friend sent me this text:

“I woke up this morning and felt like it was November 9, 2016 all over again.”

Another simply texted, “I feel sick.”

With the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I suspect many of you feel the same way. I certainly do. Since Friday night, I’ve had to avoid the news - finding it so angering and anxiety-producing that I’ve struggled to do anything this weekend.

Instead of waiting until Tuesday, I wanted to write now - to let you know that you aren’t alone and to share some thoughts on managing in the days ahead.

Gratitude helps.

Even though I wrote an entire book on gratitude, I forget how important it is in moments like this. Gratefulness enables us to overcome fear, deal with anxiety, and process grief. It isn’t phony cheerfulness or positive thinking - instead gratitude invites us to consider the gift of every moment, an especially powerful practice in times of despair.

On Saturday night, my daughter went to the vigil at the Supreme Court. I’d spent the day alternating between yelling and crying. She texted saying how hopeful and beautiful it was, and she sent this picture:

Along with the flowers and candles, most people left thank you notes. There is much to be grateful for when remembering Justice Ginsburg - in particular her resolute commitment that the rights of women mean rights for all. “For my daughter” reads one sign, along with others: “Thank you RBG.” Indeed. Feel how saying thank you brings up good tears - waves of appreciation for a life invested in others.

Politics isn’t about Saviors, it is about doing good work.

In recent decades, American politics has turned increasingly messianic. Instead of politics being about compromise, the art of the possible, and enlarging freedom and equality, it has become about ideological purity, institutional takeovers, and charismatic saviors. Our nation is now less religious about religion, and more religious about politics.

American politics has always had a religious tone - a substitute perhaps for having no state church. But its piety waxes and wanes. For most of the twentieth century, politics was largely secular, with vague references to being a “Judeo-Christian” nation. That changed around 1980, with the rise of the religious right and the election of Ronald Reagan. Fundamentalists invested messianic hope into the presidency, bringing evangelical fervor and their specific biblical hopes to the White House. Jesus might save us for heaven, but Reagan would save us from high taxes, feminism, and Communists - and he’d save millions and millions of unborn babies, too. The presidency took on a new mythology, including the power to control or destroy lives, with escalating pretensions to divinity, like an American king sitting at the right hand of God.

The influence of fundamentalist politics isn’t just about issues. It is also about leadership - and what we look for in leaders. Although Republicans and conservatives have long sought savior-politicians, liberals and progressives slowly embraced the messianic presidency as well - and now perhaps a messianic Senate and a messianic judiciary, too. In recent years, primaries and general elections resemble theological crusades or religious battles, almost a war between the gods, where losers are treated like captives or must be destroyed. (This is not a “both-sides-ism” thing, this is an observation.) We don’t just want decent leaders. We want leaders who will save us from an apocalypse and punish our enemies.

I share this in the context of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death because I fear we turned her into a savior. She was smart, bold, and heroic, and she was an increasingly frail woman whom we burdened with our fears. We needed her to live 45 more days. But death came for her - as it comes to all of us - at the most inopportune of times. Because, of course, none of us is a Messiah. She couldn’t be ours.

Justice Ginsburg was a human being, an incredible woman of valor. And her passing can remind us that while there are no political saviors, we all can work to save the world. God alone saves. Yet, we, fragile humans that we are, do the work we are given to do - whether as lawyers or politicians or preachers or teachers or doctors or florists or writers or waiters or clerks. And we do our part for the common good. When we do what we are called to do well, wherever we are called to do it, with courage and grace, we contribute to the healing, the salvus (the word salvation comes from the Latin word “to heal”) of the world, what the Jewish tradition refers to as “repairing” the universe. God is the Savior, the Healer, the Great Physician, the Comforter. But we help save - as repairers of the breach, the bringers of peace and grace, the seekers of a more just world.

An encouraging example of this occurred earlier on Friday, before Justice Ginsburg died. On the first day of early voting in Virginia (where I live), thousands of people showed up, in some cases waiting as long as four hours to cast their vote for president. Regular Americans adding voice and vote to the democratic process - committed to making their vote count and doing their part.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of us. An extraordinary example of work well done, of standing in the gap between injustice and justice, and of dedication to the whole human family. Not a savior but a co-worker, a sister standing in a long line of courage. The temptation is to look for a king - or queen - when what we really need is the beloved community, each one doing his or her or their part in turn. Doing good work. Sometimes we are on the winning side; often we find ourselves in the dissent.

And so?

After this sad and shocking weekend, and knowing that many sad and shocking days lie ahead, I find myself making room for gratitude and remembering that I can - and must - do my part.

I hope you’ll join me in both: Gratefulness and Good Work.

Each night ask yourself a question before sleep: Where did I find gratitude today? One thing, two, perhaps three. Scribble the answer in a notebook. No dissertation, just a few words. Or gather a of couple friends in a gratitude group text - and share your daily gratitudes with them.

And do what you can. There is so much none of us can control. What we can control is the work we have to do. Our daily work of caring and creating and doing good. The work of voting and organizing. The work of speaking truth. Do what you are called to do, what is in your power. And do that with courage and conviction.

You are not alone.

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I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.
-Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Courage is armor
A blind man wears,
The calloused scar
Of outlived despairs:
Courage is Fear
That has said its prayers.
- Karle Wilson Baker

Every night before I go to sleep
I say out loud
Three things that I’m grateful for,
All the significant, insignificant
Extraordinary, ordinary stuff of my life.
It’s a small practice and humble,
And yet, I find I sleep better
Holding what lightens and softens my life
Ever so briefly at the end of the day.
- Carrie Newcomer

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it. 
Maya Angelou

In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.
- Howard Thurman

I love you, O Lord, my strength. 
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
   my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
   my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. 
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised;
   so I shall be saved from my enemies. 
- Psalm 18:1-3


If you’d like to strengthen your practice of gratitude, I put together a video journey on gratefulness: Being Grateful in Difficult Times. The series includes lectures by me, mini-practice sessions, and some powerful interviews with writers, artists, and activists about what difference gratitude can make - even now, maybe especially now.

THE COTTAGE (usually!) publishes each Tuesday and Friday, with occasional weekend specials, alternating between commentary on religion and culture and inspiration for a more meaningful faith - all from an unexpected point of view. Subscribe for free and never miss an issue.

NOTE: My schedule might be a little different this coming week as I’m on a book deadline.

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