About this time before an important national election, it helps to discover springs of inspiration. A Supreme Court justice and a former poet laureate oblige.
Beki Winchel compiled five inspirational quotes from the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro interviewed Juan Felipe Herrera, America’s first Latino poet laureate, about his latest book of poems titled, Everyday We Get More Illegal. Combined, they offer invaluable insight into overcoming life obstacles, whether big or small, urgent or chronic.
Inspiration from Ginsburg and Herrera takes on special meaning because of the obstacles each faced. Ginsburg encountered discrimination because she was a woman in a professional field dominated by men, a mother and a Jew. Herrera came to America from Mexico with his family, but he spent much of his childhood hiding from his own immigrant identity by learning to dream in English.
Ginsburg’s quotes are more familiar, including her sage advice, “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” That is the prescription for true leadership. As Winchel notes, it means having your facts in line and telling your story well. More important, her advice depends on leading by principled example, leadership in action, not just words.
One of the most haunting poems in Herrera’s new book is “Border Fever 105.7 Degrees”, which retraces how a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl held in a New Mexico detention center died from dehydration and heat prostration.
“Why do you cry? Those are not screams you hear across this cage. It is a symphony, the border guard says. There’s a girl up ahead made of sparkles. Is she me, or is she dead? On the custody floor, 105.7 degrees, where do I go? Where do they go? Where do I go to breathe no more? A lost flame, a firefly dressing for freedom, where did she go?”
“Migrants aren’t separate from anyone else, and everyone else is not separate from the migrant experience or the Black experience or women’s experience or LGBTQ experience.”
Reflecting on the girl’s death, Herrera told Garcia-Navarro: “Migrants aren’t separate from anyone else, and everyone else is not separate from the migrant experience or the Black experience or women’s experience or LGBTQ experience.” We’re all in this thing called life together. We all struggle to meet the challenges we face. No one’s struggle is less consequential or less important. We should act and speak as if everyone matters.
Another of Ginsburg’s well-known quotes speaks to the virtue of persistence: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” Brick-by-brick change may seem frustrating to those who seek rapid change and immediate rewards. Sudden success is rare and even when success occurs, it is seldom a sentence with a period.
In an earlier quote, Herrera explained the value of poetry. “Poetry, as odd as it is, and as hard to figure out as it is, it’s almost something that we’re used to. It’s like a dream language that we had centuries ago, so that when we speak poetically or write a poem about what’s going on, a real difficult issue that’s facing our communities, people listen.” Media statements, press releases and speeches rarely include poetic expression, but perhaps some situations might demand the language of dreams. Complete stanzas aren’t necessary, just emotive words and phrases that convey deeper meaning and leave an indelible mark.
“I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability,” Ginsburg said. Her inestimable life achievements confirm she walked her talk. Everyone has some talent. We shouldn’t waste our gift. We also shouldn’t expect our gift to come already gift-wrapped. As Ginsburg exemplified, gifts require hard work, honing the skill and acquiring the knowledge to apply special ability where it can do the most good.
There are other ramifications of this Ginsburg quote – lead through your strength and don’t become a prisoner in your own lane. Throughout her life, Ginsburg remained devoted to what she viewed as her calling. She never wavered as the voice for equality. She also didn’t avoid living a full life by kindling deep friendships, attending the opera and enjoying a good laugh, sometimes with people with whom she strenuously disagreed. She proved you can be focused while still having some fun.
“Diversity really means becoming complete as human beings – all of us. We learn from each other. If you’re missing on that stage, we learn less. We all need to be on that stage,” Herrera says. Diversity isn’t about being politically correct. It’s about advancing our collective education, a valuable thing in a rapidly changing world.
And for those frustrated by the roadblocks immediately ahead, Ginsburg offers this advice: “Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.” Or put another way: Don’t despair or give up. Play the long game.