Setting my Ego Aside with Inspiration from Civil Rights Activist John Lewis
John Lewis, long time civil rights activist and career public servant was memorialized yesterday in Atlanta by former United States President Obama, Clinton, and Bush. Former President Jimmy Carter, at age 95, sent a statement that was read aloud. These were the last word that John Lewis shared before his death on July 17. It was not quite two months after the death of George Floyd and four months after the beginning of the COVID lockdown in many cities around the world.
"I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring." John Lewis
The current racial justice work that booms and echoes across the globe feels impressively swift, like an inevitable force. It culminates and bounds through so many nooks and corners of our lives which were previously stagnant and untouched (or, under-touched) by a collective awareness of injustice. The howling power of communities’ expressions of pain and frustration under the crushing white supremacy that pervades in the US and globally grows louder, and harder and harder to ignore.
I stopped drinking or started the work of my sober journey as is often appropriately said, in early April, as the Covid pandemic lockdown shut me in and physical contact out. It was only weeks before the killing of George Floyd that sparked the current movement for social justice. In sobriety, as in life, there is a gaping ravine between knowing what is right and the easiest path of least resistance.
This global renewal of activism and awareness sounds beautiful and intuitively desirable. But it isn’t easy – for white folk to come to terms with our role in racial injustice is a deeply personal task of self-accountability, then interpersonal accountability, and thus working towards a societal, global accountability. This means that I must be constantly checking back with my actions: am I being performative? Defensive? Where are my blind spots? Where am I complicit? The questions go on and on.. it can feel endless, this work. And with absolute reason – this is the work of undoing generations & generations of my ancestors’ privilege, and consequently undoing the internalized value system in which so much of my current identity has been constructed.
Lately, I do the bulk of this work in silence and solitude, through reading and learning. This work lives in the growing pains of slips, mistakes, and missteps. This work lives in the uncomfortable, awkward conversations with friends and family. This work is done in the shadows of the ferocity of others’ work. I am humbled in this work, and then humbled even further in my expectations around the work: no cookies for me, and I have been conditioned to expect a cookie when I exert myself in any capacity.
"Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime." John Lewis
Suddenly, the floor is ripped out from underneath me and I have to find a way to set my ego aside and to see, for the first time with clarity, that the very foundation of my perception is at a disservice to the majority. That my whiteness – an identity I’ve sort of cast aside (oh, and what a privilege to cast one’s racial identity aside!) in focus on my femaleness, or my working class identity, or rural roots, or queerness, or my spiritual/ethnic background – is in fact a central facet of who and how I am to others.
I learn, and question, and grow, and mess up, and learn, and open up a little bit more; and cycle again. It’s a praxis, really, an ongoing sense of undoing and un-done-ness; endless and cycling, maybe spiraling with forward-direction (this is the hope).
I don’t have to stretch very far to find a connection between this swirling feeling of un-done-ness and my humble experience in early sobriety. To think about sobriety as a similarly floor-demolishing praxis of self-reeducation. Even as I write this, I am half-salivating thinking of just giving into the craving to drink alcohol, a lizard-brain impulse which still haunts me still nearly three months into sobriety. In the face of these cravings, I also have the option to resist alcohol- to trust – to have some sort of faith, that through honesty, effort, and humility, I may work towards a different way of living and of being in sobriety.
If I stay the course, I may unearth a world that I cannot yet see. Sometimes I don’t even have the energy to see that sobriety matters – sometimes I have a near reliance on the voices of those who have been there before me, to have compassion for my naivety and to heed others’ wisdom. Sometimes I feel similarly exhausted and blind about racial injustice. To proceed cautiously but consistently with humility, transparency, and a desire to do better.
In order to outgrow one’s own internalized value system, to remove the blindfold of complicity and ignorance, you must first believe that it’s possible, and to imagine what that might look and feel like. Every single day I am faced with my own shortcomings and survival tactics as I try to become someone more accountable, more honest, more capable. I am thin-skinned, defensive, and impulsive; stubborn, proud, and foolish.
I am also joyful and brave as I try – really, really try – to remove my blindfold. In sobriety, as in life, there is a gaping ravine between knowing what is right and the easiest path of least resistance. People of color have generously extended the opportunity for white folks to act as allies, rather than meeting us with an arguably much-deserved vengeance. I fortunately have the choice to become sober and to meet the fullness of my life in a new and authentic way. I am grateful for the chance to course correct, to grow and shift and learn from the wisdom of others, to trust that a better world is possible, and in the process of so doing, to fall in love with the work.
"Never ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble." John Lewis
related reading : Grateful for the Gift of Sobriety in Times of Crisis
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