Life can be challenging. Things don’t always go the way we planned. We may find ourselves on the outside of groups toward which we’d hoped to be an insider. And then big disruptions – like job loss, relationship upheavals, and global pandemics – can upend our lives completely and leave us feeling completely out of sorts.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama understands the roller coaster ride of life – from personal experience and through contact with thousands of people over the years. In The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, she shares the tools she uses to maintain balance and confidence, to move forward even during life’s rough patches.
While I’ll summarize the main lessons that I gleaned, I recommend direct engagement with the material. She’s a thoughtful writer and wonderful storyteller.
Finding Strength Within Yourself
The Power of Small: Major disruptions can be overwhelming. Huge projects looming on the horizon can be intimidating. Big, seemingly intractable issues can be daunting (and downright discouraging). Instead of standing by and feeling the weight of it, try introducing yourself to something good, simple, and easily accomplished. For Michelle, it was knitting. As her hands worked the yarn, the enforced stillness and steadiness of the task provided a welcome respite from angst and worry. And much like the stitch-by-stitch process of knitting a sweater or hat, she found ways to break the big things in life down to manageable pieces. She could quietly “click” her way out of a hard place. As she said, “I’d had to go small in order to think big again.”
Decoding Fear: We all face loss, harm, and failure. Fear may cause you to avoid situations in which pain might arise. But you’d miss opportunities, and your world may shrink as a result. An alternate strategy calls for understanding the mechanics of fear to discern when it rightfully serves your best interests and when it holds you back. When we befriend fear, tame our inner doubt, and go forth, we increase the likelihood that we’ll come out the other side with new skills and confidence. For Michelle, a critical tool in this regard is preparation. It settles her nerves and gives her the assuredness that she can tackle whatever comes at her.
Starting Kind: Michelle shares an endearing story about a friend’s husband who greets himself in the mirror daily with: “Hey buddy!” In that simple act, he tells himself that he’s glad to see him. It starts the day with a vote of confidence and approval. It acknowledges his light and tells him that he’s enough. That practice may not float your boat, but find ways to silence your inner critic and tell yourself that you’re loved and worthy just as you are.
Am I Seen? Human nature craves belonging, but we may experience moments where we feel different and set apart. That sensibility can make us doubt our fundamental goodness and what we know to be true about ourselves. Michelle encourages us to accept who and what we are and carry our difference with pride. We needn’t live with a burden of judgment from others. We can choose which signals we let in and which we ignore. As her father often reminded her: “No one can make you feel bad if you feel good about yourself.”
Navigating Relationship with Others
Kitchen Table: Good friends provide emotional shelter and a safe haven for your truest self. They travel life’s journey with you and can always be counted upon to show up. Admittedly, no one person satisfies every need, and the “kitchen table” changes with time. But there is joy in investing in one another and reveling in conversations that never finish. It takes time and effort to create and sustain community. We must practice and commit to the art of opening up to others and allowing their stories to intermingle with ours.
Partnering Well: A life shared with a committed partner adds another layer of richness to the journey. That choice finds best expression from a place of knowing who you are and what you need. She says: “When you know your own light, you are then better prepared to share it with another.” As with cultivating friendships, it’s a journey that takes time, effort, and a fair chunk of trial and error. The right partner is someone who will do the work with you, not for you. Openness, vulnerability, and compromise are hallmarks of success.
The Whole of Us: In the age of social media, we are prone to put forth our rosiest life narratives and hide the stories about which we are embarrassed or ashamed. That which we hold back becomes a cloud over our heads and dampens our light. When we embrace all of our stories, we release ourselves from fear and find more of our light. Our courage can have a ripple effect. She says: “The strength of one resolute soul can become the strength of many.” As others drop their guards – perhaps with a “me, too” – we increase connection. We become more human together.
Owning, Protecting, and Strengthening Our Light
The Armor We Wear: Life does not reward openness and vulnerability in all circumstances. There are occasions when we need to armor up. We need to be attuned to those arenas, choose our battles carefully, and manage our resources to address them effectively. Michelle’s armor includes preparedness, adaptability, and excellence. She also makes judicious use of boundaries to separate other people’s issues and worries from her own.
Going High: Amidst a particularly nasty presidential campaign, Michelle delivered a keynote speech in which she said: “When they go low, we go high.” So, what does that mean? Try harder. Be thoughtful. Tell the truth. Do your best by others. Keep perspective. Stay tough. Fight for decency, fairness, and justice. Have a clear message and a call to action that makes it difficult for anyone to write you off. Do what it takes to make your work count.