Last week was one of my favorite self-proclaimed holidays: birthday week. For those of you not raised in a family of perpetual celebrators, birthday week is the seven-day long commemoration of your birth when you get to be illogically, annoyingly happy and feel special and sometimes get presents and free breakfast at Panera. (Because why settle for just one day when you can party all week long?) For the past two years it has also meant that I get to spend MLK weekend, which falls conveniently right at the start of my festivities, exploring Washington DC with some of my favorite people.
Last year a handful of friends and I packed into a car and drove to the city, crashed at a friend-of-a-friends’ apartment, made signs with magic markers and poster board, bundled up, waded into the crowd to celebrate the presidential inauguration, turned around and drove home, all within the span of 24 hours.
This year, Matthew and I went to stay with his uncle and spent the weekend visiting all the usual monuments and museums on the mall, accidentally wondering into a terrifyingly bizarre modern art exhibit that involved a lot of car accident photos, snaking around the edges of the Library of Congress Reading Room to read the beautiful inscriptions under each of the statues for Philosophy, Art, History, Commerce, Religion, Science, Law, and Poetry, playing pretend with his little cousins who appeared at the breakfast table in ballerina and Civil War Union soldier costumes, standing in line for birthday cupcakes at Georgetown Cupcake, and tearing up at the vibrant stained glass windows and mosaic altar panels in the National Cathedral. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
Walking around DC this time and thinking about the changes in my life between those two trips, I was struck by how fragile things are, how flexible we are as people, as a people.
Nothing has always been this way. Nothing will always stay this way.
History is a malleable substance, bending and shifting as we work it in our hands, taking the shape we give to it. This image doesn’t downplay the struggle of those who have fought to change it for us; it highlights it. History’s malleability is like that of gold– it requires fire and hammer and the singed, blistered hands of loving artisans to become something beautiful and lasting.
The monuments scattered around DC testify to this. There are statues dedicated to people we now all agree are heroes, who were once called less than human because of their skin color, their gender, their sexual orientation, their physical abilities… These people recognized a problem with the way they or others were treated, and they decided to take on the absurd task of changing things, re-wiring our entire system to make it work for all of us (or at least, more of us). That kind of revolution can be incredibly discouraging business. Disrupting the status quo is a dangerous hobby, and many people do not live to see the goal they fight for accomplished. After all,
“Nothing that is worth doing seems ever possible of accomplishment. Certainly nothing that is worth doing can ever be completed in the life of one generation. Every Moses perishes outside of the promised land and can behold it only through the eyes of faith.” -Reinhold Niebuhr
Bummer. But we wouldn’t celebrate how noble and visionary these folks were if what they had done was quick and easy. We invest millions in monuments to them because it’s one way for us to honor the cost paid by the people we’re memorializing. Persistent, courageous people who kept trudging towards the vision. People in positions of power who humbled themselves to serve as microphones for voices that demanded a different, better world. Among other things, they’ve made it possible for a girl from Mississippi to grow up to be a voter, a graduate student, a candidate for ordination in a mainline Christian denomination. 100 years ago, any one of those things would have be unthinkable. There is much further to go, of course, but it’s worthwhile to take a minute to be grateful for the progress that has already been made on our behalf. In the daily grind it can be hard to see the incremental changes in both our greater story together and in our personal stories as individuals. We don’t recognize the power in every step building on the last without the help of mile markers on the roadside.
I was reminded of that in a small, silly way this week. A couple of years ago, I got sick of being overweight, so I broke up the rhythm that kept me feeling crummy–the negative self-talk, the emotional eating, the nagging insecurity about how I looked. I adopted new, healthier habits in the ways I thought about myself, talked about myself, and treated myself. When all was said and done, I ended up losing over 30 pounds. It took me about two years. In the day-to-day, I didn’t see much difference at all, except that I got to eat a lot less junk food. Some days it sucked. A lot. There were tears. It was embarrassing. And over the course of those months, I didn’t notice the gradual changes when I got dressed in the morning or looked in the mirror, so it was easy to lose sight of how much my body (and the relationships between food, exercise, and body) had transformed. Then the other day I ran into a friend who had last seen me about 25 pounds ago. Her reaction, her fresh eyes on what to her seemed like a drastic and noteworthy difference, put it all back in perspective. All the everyday little bits add up.
Stepping back every now and then to look at the big picture not only honors the work that’s already been done, but it also energizes and sustains us for what’s still left to do. It’s rare that we get what we’re fighting for in one fell swoop. There usually isn’t an instantaneous arrival at our destination. It’s a lot of jolting, stalling, seed-planting, hoping and praying something sticks, with only the occasional small victory to keep our spirits up. But the overall trajectory is in the right direction. The momentum may be slow, but it’s there. We don’t feel the earth rotating, propelling us forward, but it is. Quietly, relentlessly pressing on. As Dr. King reminded us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
So take a moment to check in with yourself and the rest of us. What’s changed? What have you accomplished lately? What have you helped us as a people accomplish? I bet it’s more than you think. Let’s celebrate that. Maybe we’ll even take a whole week.