The hard way

We’ll be back in two weeks with bi-weekly messages with a prayer, an ancestor and a song speaking to our spirits. This week we bring you a longer reflection on sacrifice in honor of Passover and Holy Week. 

I went to an herbalism clinic this month for the first time to explore what plants could offer me and to learn more about the ways of healing we didn’t really talk about in my house growing up. There was a beautiful wooden plaque in the middle of the tinctures and bottles and plants. It read, "There is only the hard way." 

The friendly herbalist assured me that it wasn’t that they wanted things to be hard – no - it was just that we are often seduced by the idea in our heads that there is an easy way. And if we could just find that one, easy way, all would be well. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about sacrifice these days. This Holy Week, as the Christian season of Lent turns into Good Friday and we look out over Pesach, the Jewish holiday of Passover, it is a potent time to go deep. Many of us have been harmed by theology that told us that suffering was a sacrifice that would bring us closer to god. Many of us were told that our suffering would redeem us. Even when we knew that actual redemption would have been to be free from the suffering to begin with. And many of us are only here because of the sacrifices of others. And so much of what is possible to carve out in this world requires some giving up, some letting go, some sacrifice. 

And that is the truth of the little wooden sign in the herbalism clinic: there is no easy way. There is only the hard way. And in particular, the work of justice often asks us to do impossible, hard, terrifying things. There is no easier way. There is only this one, hard way. Folks with more privilege sometimes get caught up here. "If it’s hard, maybe we are doing it wrong," we tell ourselves. We are lulled by our experiences of choosing between a hard choice and an easier one. Folks with less privilege know that many of our choices are between a horrific choice and a horrific choice. And we learn to live with that and keep going. 

I’ve so wanted to do the right thing, the just thing, the generous thing and also not have to give anything at all. I’ve wanted to share my opinions but not actually donate my evenings, my weekends, my doing-dishes-while-on-the-conference-call to get to understand the work enough to be able to offer meaningful thoughts. I’ve wanted people to trust me and let me shape the vision but not actually risk inviting folks out to tea, dinner, beers, church to build a relationship that endures and carries us forward. I’ve wanted to post the cute meme without actually making the phone call to my city councilor or state representative. I’ve wanted to be part of the badass direct action without the long past midnight planning meetings, the messy decision-making, the frayed relationships, and the constant wondering if this is even worth it. I’ve wanted to preach about being bound together in interdependence, but not actually wanted to give over my guest room to a stranger, give over a paycheck to someone I’ve never met, turn my schedule inside out to do what needs to be done. And these prices are so much less than those facing so many Black women leaders and immigrant organizers today.

The word ‘sacrifice’ is maybe too much a mess for some of us, too tainted by oppression and coercion. What matters is less the word but that we are willing to live our lives in the shape of what is being asked. Not hope that what is being asked of us will fit the shape of our lives. Nobody needs martyrs or saviors. Repeat that with me: nobody needs martyrs or saviors. And when our understanding is that the work of justice should fit our lives, instead of us being willing to let our lives move to fit it, we cede so much of our power. 

I can’t un-know the sacrifices that my parents and my grandparents and my ancestors made for me. I can wish they weren’t necessary or that there had been another way, but that’s an alternate world. In this one, what others have done for me becomes fuel for figuring out how to "keep moving with your heart hurt and your body starting to tire" as Toshi Reagon sings. Movimiento Cosecha has sacrifice as one of their principles: "Our seeds come from the tree of sacrifice. We honor the hard work of all the people who bring their gifts to the movement. We believe that people’s work in Cosecha is for the collective well-being of everyone and not for personal gain or to advance individual interests." Mary Hooks in her work leading Southerners On New Ground offers this mandate: "to avenge the suffering of our ancestors, to earn the respect of future generations, and to be transformed in the service of the work." In the most recent episode of Fortification, Paulina Helm-Hernández and Caitlin Breedlove talk about how the sacrifices of our families can actually be spirit-building. 

What is your understanding of what is required of you? What you must do to earn the respect of those who come after? How has sacrifice, however complex, built your spirit? What is the hard way you are willing to go? 

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