RIP, John Lewis.
That is the word that came to me this morning as I saw the news that John Lewis had passed away yesterday.
That he was Resting.
That he was Resting Well.
That he had Returned.
That he wasn’t from this world. None of us are really if we stop and think about it. We are here for a time, faced with a job to do. We do that job as much or as well as we choose to, and then we are let go. Returned. And hopefully resting well.
He should be resting well…to face life the way Rep. Lewis faced it. With seemingly no fear. I know that isn’t true. We all have fear. The question is how deeply we give into it. However much he was was afraid, he certainly did not give into it. Or rather it don’t stop him.
In December of 2019, after a full life of fighting for civil liberties and equal rights, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer. What must he have thought about that? Did it make him laugh? I hope it gave him a good laugh. That this God that sent him out to do his work must have had some sort of sense of humor. That any truth to the statement that God gives us only what we can handle is fallacy. He gives us WAY more than that. The beauty is that we can handle way more than we know.
“I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life.” This was his response on December 29th of last year when he revealed to the world that he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer.
I often think the fights with which I will engage in my life will be short and sweet and victorious. I always imagine them victorious. I think the older I get the more I realize that victory often comes later than expected.
I can often forget that another side is fighting too. With their heels dug in. To dislodge those heels we often have to change their minds, which often requires being faced with our own brutality. After seeing what can happen to George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Tamir Rice.
How could we not change our minds after seeing the moral courage of someone like a John Lewis? Who was beaten for his stances. With billy clubs and tear gas. Then, when he tried to get up, he was beaten again.
One of the things I try and teach my acting students is how on God’s green earth do we attempt to bring reality to stage. How do we reveal the fear that Antigone must feel facing up to Creon. Standing up for her beliefs. Being locked in a cave. Not in the abstract, but in the reality. How does John Lewis face the fact that he will be met with billy clubs on the other side of the bridge to Selma for the simple act of demanding voting rights. How does he know it’s coming and yet do it anyway? Knowing it was going to hurt. Having been through the Freedom Rides in 1961. The more hits I withstand the less I want. He seemed to be the opposite. Every whip to the head only convinced him there were more he could take.
Because in order to enact change, we as humans often have to witness the blows we are capable of inflicting on others. Sometimes what these heroes go through on stage gets their points across the finish line a little faster. Gets us as a county on to the next battle. Which usually has those same heroes there waiting to fight some more.
Those beatings Lewis and others received helped galvanize support for the Voting Rights Act. Why is that so often the way? Why does it take visual proof of our proclivity for violence before we make changes in ourselves?
We face a similar moment now.
After seeing what happened to George Floyd, Mr. Lewis said, “It was so painful, it made me cry. People now understand what the struggle was all about. It’s another step down a very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”
One of the things in my life I’m the most proud of is that I was able to vote for him back in 2016 while I was living in his district in Atlanta. I loved that I was his constituent when trump insulted him: “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”
This is what he said about him on Twitter. I read it while I was shopping for organic produce at Whole Foods a mile from my home.
When I was first dealing with my diagnosis, I spent most of my first year taking daily walks in the nature preserve behind the John Lewis Elementary School. I tried to remember the man’s valiancy every time I set foot in the woods behind the school. I thought about the walks he had to endure every time I smelled the summer flowers and marched up the long steep hill to the top of the park.
I hope I face my battles half as courageously as he faced his. And that when I, in a long, long, long, long time, eventually return to the place from whence we all come, to the place before, that I will find him still Resting.
Still Resting Well.