In the days following the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, I talked with women and gay men who had been re-traumatized by the whole spectacle. I heard stories of rape, beatings, threats, and bullying, almost always at the hands of young men. Some said that they had never told their stories before, and almost all said that they carry the wounds of their experiences to this day. Their suffering, and their courage and resilience in responding to it, was deeply moving.
Last time I wrote about “victors” – those spiritual giants among us who are able, not merely to survive their traumas, but to triumph over them. As an example, I mentioned Viktor Frankl, the Viennese psychiatrist who found that, even in the hell of Auschwitz, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I also mentioned Nelson Mandela, who, wrote that, after twenty-seven years in prison, “As I walked out the door to the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” and who, from this spiritual understanding, was able to lead an entire country through a process of forgiveness and reconciliation.
But this week, one hero who seems particularly relevant is Maya Angelou, whose story of survival and victory is one of the most inspiring I’ve ever heard. It was hard enough to be a black girl trying to grow up in the Jim Crow South, but at the age of eight she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She only told her brother, but he told the rest of the family. Freeman was tried and found guilty, but he was only jailed for one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by relatives of Angelou. Angelou stopped speaking for almost five years because she believed that speaking up had killed him. She wrote, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.” But it was during this period of silence that she found her love for language and literature, so that when she recovered her voice, she was able to speak truths that lifted up millions.
Hear her celebrate her victory: “Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise/ Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise/ I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,/ Welling and swelling I bear in the tide/ Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise/ Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise/ Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave/ I am the dream and the hope of the slave./ I rise/ I rise/ I rise.”
How was she able to overcome so much? I know of nothing in any of the psychology I’ve studied that would explain it. I seriously doubt that I personally would have survived if I had been subjected to the level of torment that she endured. But rather than dwell on my own limitations, I want to receive inspiration from her example and that of all victors. They show us that we are not defined by our suffering, but that, even in the midst of winter, we too have within us an invincible summer. I want to remember that the same fire that burned in them lives in me as well, and to respond to the lesser trials in my own life in the light of their example.
It is winter in America now. I have never seen my country so lost, so full of greed, hatred, and delusion. But if Viktor Frankl, Nelson Mandela, and Maya Angelou could find the inner strength to be victorious in much more dire circumstances, then maybe I, too, can respond with courage and dignity to this time in our history. We are called to connect with our own invincible summer, to nurture it in each other, and to act in the world from that light. We know what we have to do. Politically the questions couldn’t be simpler: Shall we stand with the victims or with the perpetrators? with the oppressed or with the oppressors? The answers are equally simple.