By: Eric Betts
Those who are in leadership are living in constantly changing times. Sometimes those changes often appear to be for the worse rather than for the better. It is in those moments as a leader that you must remain hopeful. Hope is always contagious. A hopeful attitude and disposition often cause others around you to be hopeful and motivated to press forward to whatever is next. It is in those seasons where one can be reminded of the poem written by the legendary American icon and poet Maya Angelou entitled “Still I Rise.”
This theme of Resurrection is a focal point for many Christians and those with a Christian background during the season of Holy Week. Many leaders have found encouragement from the words of this “Still I Rise” poem. When feeling as though all is lost and that there is no hope for tomorrow, there is always a chance for a rebound. Often when one is experiencing their worst moments and has suffered from an obvious failure which is visible to all around, this adds to the discouragement and demoralized feelings. It is in those moments where critics often pile on and add to your misery and sense of shame. Those who were looking for you to fail, will see themselves as being vindicated by your loss; this can include those whom you have helped through their own traumatic experiences in life. Sometimes those whom you have helped will not lend a hand but rather add insult to injury and pour salt in your wounds. Those are objects of sneers in the midst of their loss may identify with the words of the poem which says:
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
Facing the judgment and scrutiny of others, upon suffering setbacks, Maya Angelou’s poem is instructive. It provides a source of inspiration for those leaders who may feel as though they have hit rock bottom and that all is lost. It informs its audience that you may have failed but you are not a failure. Failure is what has happened to you, but it does not define who you are. You have what it takes within you to rise from your failure. You may have suffered loss but you are not a loser. You are not defined by your losses but rather your determination to continue on in spite of your losses. This determination is a testimony of your character, not the circumstances to which you have fallen.
Feeling as though you are drowning within the confusion, the chaos, and uncertainty, “Still I Rise” helps us remember a brighter day is coming and that trouble won’t always last. One of the great Hebrew prophets stated, “Weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning.” In other words, it is natural to cry and weep today; you may weep today, but the day will come when you will laugh again. Your drive and sense of purpose will return and you will smile again. Night can only last for a limited period of time, and eventually the day must break. Light shall appear at the end of the tunnel of your darkest hours.
You may look around and see others laughing, smiling, and happy while you are broken inside. Your inner peace should not be disturbed due to comparing your levels of happiness with that of others. Choosing for yourself in that moment how you want to feel is what is important. Sadness or grief is a part of being human as much as happiness. It’s okay to feel sadness; it doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you. Remember that sometimes those who are smiling the most and appear to be the happiest may very well be the most broken and traumatized on the inside, and you would not want to trade places with them. Therefore, we cannot use the happiness or the smiles or the laughter of other people as a measurement for our own experience. Tragedy, loss, and suffering are all a part of the human experience whether rich or poor. Persons who appear to be on top of the world today, may very well hit rock bottom tomorrow. Life is filled with swift transitions and many twists and turns. There are millions of biographies throughout history that will tell us that there is hope in the midst of suffering and tragedy. There may be those who have never believed in you, but be thankful it is not up to them. They will see your loss and your failure as an opportunity to exalt themselves and to view themselves in a more favorable light. Do not be discouraged if they are using your failure as a way to hold on to their own sense of importance.
Indeed, it is painful when others cheer your downfall and have no sympathy in your most depressing moments in life. They may try to bury you through their criticism and pile on while you are down and out, but as Maya Angelou said, “Still I Rise.” To those who celebrate what they perceive as your downfall, hold to the words of the poem:
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Those who are pointing to your failures to define you are wasting their time. Don’t waste yours by focusing on them. Every failure, loss, or setback is an opportunity for a new beginning that will be greater than before. Hope is the bridge over troubled waters, which is the span between your loss and the new beginning that will eventually emerge. Maintain your determination and commitment and patience throughout the journey, and you’ll be glad you never gave up. While others are piling on because of your loss, the stage is being set for a greater opportunity to live into your purpose. The way to deal with the criticism and doubt concerning your potential is understanding that this only a bump in the road to progress. There is a way to get back up again and climb out of your rock-bottom circumstance. This poem also has a word for those who are looking for motivation beyond the criticism and insults.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies.
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
What Maya Angelou illustrates is that your future victories, conquests, and triumphs are not hindered by the negative attitudes that are directed against you in your hour of distress. Angelou states that your resurrection from the graveyard of broken situations is as certain as the rise of the sun and moon and the evening tides. It is this mindset that kept Maya Angelou strong in the various struggles of life. While absolute certainty is not possible, absolute confidence is indeed possible.
“Still I Rise” is a positive affirmation that we all can say to ourselves when we feel buried by the hardships and trauma of life. Don’t wait for others to encourage you; learn how to encourage yourself and say, “Still I rise.”
There has been so much tragedy in our community over the past few weeks with the severe storms, tornadoes, and high winds that have caused devastation. They have interrupted our lives and too many have lost their lives. Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas have been greatly impacted. These tragedies can be extremely discouraging and disheartening; however, we have within in us that internal instinct that says, “Still we rise.” We will rise.
By: Eric Betts
Assistant Director, Curtis Coleman Center for Religion Leadership and Culture at Athens State University