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If There is No Struggle There is No Progress

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” - Frederick Douglass

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People protesting on the streets with a "black lives matter" placard

In the realm of mindful leadership I’m often emphasizing the need to stay open, relaxed, and curious as essential attitudes toward envisioning, collaboration and problem solving.  Even though Connect To Your Pain, and Connect To The Pain Of Others are two of the Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader (from my book), I don’t feel as though I’ve ever fully taken on these practices when it comes to my own attitudes, assumptions, and actions in relation to diversity, equity, and racism.

I recently stumbled across the phrase, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.” When it comes to changing deeply embedded beliefs and long-term systems of bias and racism, real progress, real change internally and systemically requires heartbreak, pain, upset, and lots of struggle.

This phrase “if there is no struggle, there is no progress” is embedded in a speech given by Frederick Douglass in 1857.  His life is amazing and inspiring. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1817. He became a leading writer, statesman, and abolitionist.  In 1872 he was the first African American to be nominated for vice-president of the United States.

Here is a portion of a speech he gave on August 3, 1857:

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

The origin of the word “struggle” is to stumble and wrestle. The root of the word “solutions” is to loosen, untie, to dissolve. It takes a good deal of stumbling and wrestling to find a way to loosen and untie our own attitudes, and dissolve and shift our mental models – this is true in our individual search for freedom as well as in the search for racial freedom which has lasted for generations, the result of lifetimes of greed, hatred, and delusion. Right now, many of us are stumbling and wrestling, feeling pain and heartbreak.

It feels important to not move too quickly away from the pain and struggle toward solutions. These issues don’t have quick or easy fixes.

It feels critical to work on loosening, untying, and dissolving our deeply held assumptions and beliefs, to really examine our conscious and unconscious models about ourselves, and to consider where we put our attention, and the actions we take to shift the systems that our individual and collective beliefs support and create.

Frederick Douglass put it another way:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

In this paragraph, I see a list of practices that provide a path toward finding greater internal freedom, as well as greater freedom in the struggle for a more equal and just world.

Plowing the ground: mindfulness practice and meditation practice begin with plowing the ground of our beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and the world. This means turning over the comfortable, well-worn soil of our thinking and emotions. Often the top layers are hardened and crusty, like earth that has been untended for a long time. Plowing them under is hard; a struggle. It’s not clear what we will find when we look more deeply. This plowing process I see as a combination of meditation, listening, inquiring, and allowing our hearts to soften.

Rain without thunder and lighting: real change and sustainable freedom requires us to listen, to be surprised, and at times frightened and shaken by the thunder and lightning that accompanies shifting from being comfortably asleep to waking up to the terrible injustices being perpetrated on people of color. This is the practice of moving outside of our comfort zones, to bear witness, and to open to what’s possible.

The awful roar: hearing and responding to the pains and injustices of the world can be painful and heartbreaking. We are called to open ourselves and our hearts to the painful roar of people who’ve been calling out for centuries. It also means listening to the roar of possibility, care, and compassion.

We find ourselves living in extraordinary times. There is so much pain and so much possibility.  But it is through this very struggle, as Douglass so wisely said, that we can realize true progress, individually and collectively.

There are so many important resources on this topic. I’ve compiled a few of those here: Resources for Racial Justice.

Here’s a poem that was published on the cover of last week’s New York Times Book Review…

Weather, by Claudia Rankine

On a scrap of paper in the archive is written
I have forgotten my umbrella. Turns out
in a pandemic everyone, not just the philosopher,
is without. We scramble in the drought of information
held back by inside traders. Drop by drop. Face
covering? No, yes. Social distancing? Six feet
under for underlying conditions. Black.
Just us and the blues kneeling on a neck
with the full weight of a man in blue.
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
In extremis, I can’t breathe gives way
to asphyxiation, to giving up this world,
and then mama, called to, a call
to protest, fire, glass, say their names, say
their names, white silence equals violence,
the violence of again, a militarized police
force teargassing, bullets ricochet, and civil
unrest taking it, burning it down. Whatever
contracts keep us social compel us now
to disorder the disorder. Peace. We’re out
to repair the future. There’s an umbrella
by the door, not for yesterday but for the weather
that’s here. I say weather but I mean
a form of governing that deals out death
and names it living. I say weather but I mean
a November that won’t be held off. This time
nothing, no one forgotten. We are here for the storm
that’s storming because what’s taken matters.

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