5 ways John Lewis Changed the World—without burning out. (And we can too.)

“Take a long, hard look down the road you will have to travel once you have made a commitment to work for change. Know that this transformation will not happen right away. Change often takes time. It rarely happens all at once.”

John Lewis on protesting in Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change

We want change.

All of us who fight for a cause we believe in, urgent for a world more compassionate and just, know how important it is to work for change. We also know it’s hard.

It’s hard to sustain the fight.

We live in a world that is so broken, in so many ways, that there is seemingly no end to the depth of change that is needed. Our planetary home is awash in the negative repercussions of unbound greed, monumental inequality, normalized interpersonal and structural violence, and extreme ecological and psychological destruction.

There is work to be done everywhere, and the work is rarely pretty. Healing what is broken requires us to face — and feel — the ugliness of the world, even as we work to transform it.

Passion only gets us so far.

When we first become passionate to work for a better world, our passion itself can make us strong.

Fueled by the fires of passion, we can push through pain, frustration, and threats of failure that lurk in the shadows. We can push past cynicism and apathy, and throw off their threats to derail us. When we lose a battle, we can laugh in the face of naysayers, batten down the hatches of our rattled hearts, and carry on. Passion is a potent tool.

But long time spent navigating a broken world can, over extended time, begin to undermine even the toughest spirit. Facing down ugliness repeatedly, our hearts can become so bruised and tender that our passions, formerly a source of strength, can begin to hurt us from within.

Standing in witness of violence, cruelty, or the incessant destruction of that which we love, our passion can shapeshift into anger or hatred, and begin to burn us from the inside.

In the experience of continued loss or seemingly insurmountable opposition, our passion can wither into desperation or despondency. What once fueled us now smoulders within as lost opportunity, overwhelm, and hopelessness.

Whatever form it takes, once passion is compromised into self-harm, we can lose our will, and our way. We must find another source of power.

It is worth asking, then, when we encounter individuals who have fought and won tremendous, protracted battles before us, how they achieved their victories.

How do some people weather a lifetime of challenges, continuing to fight long after others faded into the shadows? How do they keep their inner fires lit for a lifetime, without burning out in the process?

We would be wise to look to civil rights icon John Lewis for answers.

The conscious activism of John Lewis.

When John Lewis died in July at 80 years old, he left behind a legacy of commitment to social justice that spanned six decades of work as an organizer, activist, and lawmaker. Sometimes called the “conscience” of the US Congress for his steadfast adherence to nonviolence and moral high ground, Rep. Lewis’ loss was mourned by presidents and peacemakers, activists and lawmakers, in multiple ceremonies around the country. His work, and his life, had changed the world.

Lewis’ story reveals how a brave and soft-spoken man, his sensitive heart broken by the injustice of his world, rose from humble beginnings as the son of Alabama sharecroppers to become a towering figure of nonviolent change.

Serving as a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the young Lewis helped organize the 1963 March on Washington in lockstep with Martin Luther King Jr.

An original freedom rider, and leader of the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, he played an instrumental part in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

And when his life chapter of grassroots activism transformed, his calling shifted, and he served over 30 years in the US Congress.

Whether sitting in protest demanding desegregation of Nashville lunch counters, or sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives demanding legislative action on gun control, Lewis’ objective was to change not only laws, but hearts and minds. In this way he worked tirelessly for both outer and inner transformation, from his youth until the last days of his life.

I’ve long been inspired by Rep. Lewis, not only for the ideals he fought for and the success he achieved, but for the man of conscience he was. I’ve often considered how he was able to sustain his lifelong struggle without giving up, taking moral shortcuts, or turning bitter.

This is an important question to answer, because of course, the work of Rep. Lewis is not done. We generations who survive him have inherited his legacy — the legacy of all our ancestors who devoted their lives to leave us a more just and equal world. And with that inheritance comes the responsibility for our generations to carry that torch into the future.

The world is still broken. And the work of healing is now ours to do. We can’t afford to drop the ball.

Below I humbly offer five lessons we might take from Lewis’ lifelong journey of conscious activism, to fuel us in our own fight.

1. He sacrificed for what he believed in.

“Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice.”

John Lewis

When the young John Lewis followed his heart to join in the nonviolent activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., he did so under threat of great violence.

He knew that joining the freedom struggle was dangerous. As a young Black man in America, participation in any act of civil disobedience would mean putting his body — and his very life — in harm’s way.

Beaten unconscious by state troopers with billy clubs when crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, to demand voting rights for Black Americans, he did not let the damage to his body stop him. He left the hospital, head wrapped in bandages, and vowed to continue the fight. He was 25 years old.

This wasn’t the only time Lewis put himself in harm’s way for his ideals. He did it repeatedly during his long career. Arrested, jailed, and beaten, insulted and harassed, again and again, Lewis showed great resolve in his ability to sustain blows, physical and psychological, and continue to stand tall on the rebound.

Far from weakening him, Lewis’ sacrifices made him stronger — in his resolve, and in the eyes of the world. Each “defeat” he faced with dignity planted seeds of greatness in him, as an activist and a human being. Each time he took on the dehumanization of others by standing in his own self-worth, he inspired others to his cause.

It may seem counter-intuitive at first, that in sacrifice we become strong. But when we decide from the outset that we are willing to give up our own small desires for the sake of something bigger, that decision empowers us. Unified in our higher intention, our priorities become clear, and trivial concerns fall away. We cease to be split by competing desires, or depleted by the short-term ups and downs of our individual lives. We are energized by wholeness.

From wholeness, sacrifice becomes not suffering for its own sake, but a taking on of the suffering of that we wish to transform — whether that be human, non-human, or ecological suffering. Our own suffering through sacrifice can not only open others’ eyes to our cause, but can also deepen our connection to the purpose and meaning of our fight.

This is not to say we should sacrifice our own welfare, that we should not care for ourselves along the journey. We must give ourselves time for rest and recovery, even taking long breaks when necessary. If we succumb to exhaustion, we are no good to ourselves, or anyone else.

But there is a difference between self-centeredness and self-care.

Self-centeredness focuses us on our own small needs and goals, and blinds us to the greater need around us.

But self-care, far from being a selfish act, is an act of service to the whole. Caring for ourselves makes us strong for ourselves and for others. It keeps us clear and focused, on what we are doing and why. And when the time comes to sacrifice, it will be energy, not exhaustion, that fuels our choices.

Most of us will not have to face such imminent danger in standing up for our convictions as John Lewis did (though many of us will). We may or may not ever be called to put our body or life on the line for our cause.

But our willingness to sacrifice our personal interest, or even just our immediate personal desires and preferences, for the long-term welfare of all, will nonetheless serve us well. The power of self-sacrifice links us to the combined power of all life, the resources of which are inexhaustible. It feeds us not on our own individual energy, but the energy of the whole.

Question for consideration:

What sacrifice could I make that would, paradoxically, empower and strengthen both myself and my cause?

2. He practiced what he preached.

“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Though Lewis was willing to sacrifice his life for the cause of freedom, he would never, not for anything, sacrifice his integrity.

John Lewis walked softly upon a life path that was, as he said, “the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence.” A nonviolent warrior, he achieved change not by force or competition, but by standing up to violence with nonviolence, responding to fear with love.

This was not a simple task, nor an obvious one. Nonviolence was both a strategy he studied and a lifestyle he practiced, which led him to a disciplined understanding of human nature and social transformation.

He knew that justice taken by violence is no justice at all. Justice taken by violence doesn’t normalize justice; it only normalizes violence.

Lewis knew that in order to gain respect, one must give it. That to demand fairness, one must offer it. He held himself to the same ideals that he demanded from others: civility and dignity, even in the heat of conflict.

That is why Lewis was not only fighting to change laws — though that was imperative — but also to change the way people think. He wanted to change society, but he understood that meant individual people within society must change, too.

By choosing principle over mere strategy, Lewis gained another power: the power of integrity. With his principles rooted in modeling his own values of peace and justice, he paved himself a solid foundation that could not be shaken by short-term losses, fleeting emotions, or strategic machinations of the crowd. He did not suffer the weakness and instability of hypocrisy that takes so many of us down.

Think, activists demanding respect, while refusing to respect others.

Think, politicians paying lip service to ethics and values while acting unethically, in their politics or their lives.

These kinds of incongruencies weaken us and make us less effective, not only in attracting others to our cause, but in achieving our ultimate goals.

In contrast, Lewis’ alignment of inner values and outer actions merged into one focused arrow of intention that could not be blown from its target. Unified in word and deed, he was both efficient and effective. The more efficient we are, the longer, and deeper, we can go.

In light of his great integrity, one might disagree with Lewis on policy, but could not disagree with his goodness as a man. Thus he became a living, powerful expression of his own message.

Question for consideration:

In what aspects of my life could I become more integrated in thought, word, and deed? How might that make me more effective in my work?

3. He stayed in the game.

“If you don’t do everything you can to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once. You have to give it all you have.”

John Lewis

When Lewis jumped headlong into the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, he could not have known how long the struggle would last. It turns out, it would be a long game.

Yes, there would be victories early in his fight. Desegregation. Civil rights legislation. The passage of the Voting Rights Act, etc. But Lewis didn’t stop there.

He wasn’t in it for one win, or even one season. He was in it for the achievement of a grander vision: freedom, equality, and indeed the liberated soul of his country. No less than “a more perfect union” was his goal. Thus he worked tirelessly, not for the passage of one law, but for the payout of our country’s original promise: that all human beings are “created equal,” and will be afforded equal rights and dignity.

Lewis had signed up therefore, not for a single bridge crossing, but for a long march to freedom.

Because he knew his was a long game, Lewis could be patient. But his patience was not a passive patience that sits back and waits for justice to come. It was Lewis, himself, who decried such passivity in his speech at the March on Washington. “We do not want our freedom gradually,” he said, “but we want to be free now!”

No, Lewis was not patiently waiting. But by virtue of his long vision, he could be patient in his actions.

Knowing his momentary place in a long fight for the hearts and minds of America, Lewis could afford to follow a long-term strategy. He could be deliberate, disciplined, and persistent. His wide vision expanded his sense of time, and he could afford to see each action, not only in light of its own effectiveness, but also as a step along a much longer journey. He could view wins and losses not as complete in themselves, but as ups and downs on the journey in a much longer march to victory.

Because of this, he was not stopped by setbacks, nor placated in victory. He knew there was always more to come.

In his slow-burning resolve to stay the course and march forward as long as needed, he could keep his torch lit and carry on. Yes, he wanted things to change now. But in the case that they did not, he would — and could — keep on walking.

None of us know, when we begin a fight, how long the fight will last. It is our commitment, and not our timeline, that truly anchors us to a cause. John Lewis signed up, for as long as it took. That was both his anchor, and his opportunity.

Question for consideration:

Regarding the fight closest to my heart, am I in it for the short victory, or the long march? How might I tap into an active patience that could fuel me toward both my immediate goal and my ultimate vision?

4. His vision stretched beyond his movement — and his time.

“Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”

John Lewis

Not only did Rep. Lewis stay in the game, he knew he was playing a game that stretched far beyond his own moment in time. He understood that his movement was but one playbook in a league of many colors and a season spanning centuries. His life lived in loving protest was but one voice in a generations-long conversation.

This wide vision expanded his sense of community.

Lewis understood that the fight for justice does not stop with the fight for civil rights for the Black community, though that fight was his urgent imperative.

He understood the importance of movement building, but also movement linking. He never hesitated to speak in support of kindred contemporary candidates and causes, believing, as King did, that “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Thus, his courageous activism did not stop with passage of the voting act, or the excruciatingly long (and still continuing) dismantling of Jim Crow, but expanded to become a passionate cry for peace and equality in all its necessary forms. His sense of justice spanned the globe.

In the last days of his life, Lewis wrote a letter to future generations, which he requested to be published on the day of his funeral. In that letter, he draws parallels between his own experience of the “unholy oppression” and “government-sanctioned terror” of both his time, and ours.

In that letter, he urges those of us who survive him to work “with other movements and supporting other causes, learning from history, learning from each other,” and asks us to “continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”

This urging us on is a sign of hope.

Hope is not the vain wish of the disengaged, or the weakness of a dreaming fool. It is a sign of vision and imagination.

It is a sign that we can see beyond current struggle into the wide-open potential of the future. It means we believe in in personal agency and the power of choice.

To live for a future beyond one’s lifetime, to fight for things to be better even though we may never witness them with our own eyes, to cheer on the next generation toward that end, necessarily means that we believe a better future is possible. Some might say it is the very definition of hope.

Fueled by his wide and hopeful vision, Lewis had the reserves to march on when things got dark, truth and justice obscured in the midst of the fight.

What would it be like if each of us could live inside a vision this wide?

On one hand, it might take some pressure off. We could realize that it does not fall on our individual shoulders to win the whole war, or accomplish the complete transformation of society (as if that were even possible).

On the other hand, it would demand from us a greater responsibility for our choices. It is not only today’s battles we win or lose with our actions. The success of future generations depends on us doing our part, now.

Question for consideration:

What might I do differently if I engaged in my work as though my role were not an end in itself, but rather, one scene in the long and interconnected play of life? What might I contribute to my cause, now and in the future?

5. He sourced his strength from within.

“When you lose your sense of fear, you’re free.”

John Lewis

It would be possible to judge the achievements of John Lewis at face value, and assume his impact came from his “outer strengths,” those apparent on the surface: tenacity, courage, commitment.

But as suggested above, it was not his surface-level capacities, but the developing character behind them, that fueled Lewis on his long march. While he was a man of great achievements, the things that made him great were not achievements at all, but inner seeds of spirit and conscience that transformed his passion into purpose.

Lewis’ courage was not brute courage, but the moral courage of a man on a mission for love.

His activism was sacred activism, fueled by his belief in the dignity of the human being, and the faith in the human family to rise to its highest potential.

His purpose was not merely to win, but to win hearts and minds to the side of love.

Guided by an internal beacon, his resolve would not be swayed by fear, threats, or setbacks.

Of course, he planned his strategy. But then he acted with his heart.

Lewis would not put all his confidence in the physical world to empower him. He pulled his strength not from the limited energies of body and mind, but from the endless reservoir of spirit. For it was not his body that held him through the frightening times, the quiet times, the frustrations and the victories. It was his soul.

No specific religion or faith holds the bar as the definitive guide to spirit. Spirit is not religion; it is simply that power, peace, and freedom that enter us from beyond the visible world when we offer ourselves in service to the greater good, to all life.

To work from spirit is to cease depending on the approval of others for our value. To work from spirit is to be immune from the threats of others levied upon us to manipulate, weaken, or destroy our will. The inner strength of spirit is akin to the deepest roots of the tallest tree we know, a grounding influence that holds us steadfast yet allows us to rise above the tumultuous storms of life.

If we have big dreams for change, we would do well to start planting seeds of inner strength, and digging our roots in deeply now.

Question for consideration:

Is my internal beacon weak or strong? Are my roots shallow or deep? What sources of inner strength might I tap into, in order to sustain myself better over time?

Honoring his legacy…

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America.”

John Lewis

However imperfect we still are in the fight for equality and freedom, however much work we have yet to do, the world is a different place than it was when Lewis began his lifelong march for justice.

Our country, still far from achieving its ideal, has nonetheless progressed undeniably in our struggle for “freedom and justice for all” as a result of what Lewis, King, and others achieved.

Through his vision and his actions, John Lewis changed the world.

What final insights might we take away from the life of Rep. Lewis that we can apply to our own work for change? How can we honor the legacy of Lewis, and all our ancestors who have entrusted us with the work of continuing the march?

It is easy to look at a person who has changed the world with their achievements, and think they must be extraordinary, they must have abilities we do not, that we could not do what they have done.

We might look at John Lewis, beaten and bruised yet returning to fight, or serving 30 years inside a messy and contentious congress without sacrificing his integrity. We might doubt that we could do what he did.

But we should not think that his achievements are beyond us, that we can’t reach those same heights with the resources we have at hand.

John Lewis may have been a great man, but he was also an ordinary man. He came from humble beginnings and found his path by following his heart toward truth.

It is not merely what he did, but the way he did it, which cemented his success. It is not the particulars of his story we need to emulate (though they are instructive), but the consciousness he brought to them.

Any one of us can do the same thing.

It is not the particulars of our own story, but the consciousness we bring to them, that makes us who we are.

I hope that with this list, I have elucidated that what made John Lewis great was not something special about him in particular, but something special about each one of us: our ability to create our own character. We need not depend on money, or influence, or education, or anything worldly to empower us. Those things may be helpful, but they are not required for us to make a difference.

What is required is passion. Passion, tempered by understanding.

In his lifelong struggle for justice, Lewis never lost his passion. But neither did he let it rule him.

On the contrary, he used his passion as a tool, an inner flame to illuminate his journey. He tended to it carefully, like a well-maintained fire, resisting the temptation to throw gas on the flames and set the land ablaze.

Lewis clearly understood that passion alone cannot achieve the the great work of social transformation. But passion, when combined with sacrifice, integrity, commitment, vision, and spirit, can change the world.

In this synthesis, Lewis had discovered the source of sustainable activist energy: when our engine is fueled by wholeness, we don’t run out.

We do not need to be John Lewis to change the world. We only need to be exactly who we are. Each one of us already has the tools, available information, and power within us to transform our future, should we choose to use that power wisely.

Question for consideration:

What will you choose?

In memory of John Lewis | February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020

I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe… I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.

John Lewis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *