My best friend recently had a baby. And when I met him, I was in awe of witnessing this tiny, beautiful being enter into our lives. I also had this realization that he wasn't just entering our lives, he was entering the world — this crazy world that, especially now, feels so incredibly challenging. I spend a lot time in my work talking to people about who we are, who we must be and what our healing looks like.
So the first time I held him, I had my pep talk ready. You know, I wanted him to know that the way we find our strength is through our challenges. I wanted him to know that we can all do something big when we start small. I wanted him to know that each of us is more resilient than we could ever imagine. So here I am holding little Thelonious. I look down at him, and it hits me: he's a baby.
He's not going to understand a single word I say to him. So instead, I thought it would probably be a better idea if I went home and wrote. So, this is for grownups, but it's also for Thelonious, when he's old enough to read it:
The world will say to you, "Be a better person." Do not be afraid to say, "Yes." Start by being a better listener. Start by being better at walking down the street. See people. Say, "Hello." Ask how they are doing and listen to what they say. Start by being a better friend, a better parent, a better child to your parents; a better sibling, a better lover, a better partner. Start by being a better neighbor. Meet someone you do not know, and get to know them.
The world will say to you, "What are you going to do?" Do not be afraid to say, "I know I can't do everything, but I can do something." Walk into more rooms saying, "I'm here to help." Become intimate with generosity. Give what you can give, and do what you can do. Give dollars, give cents, give your time, give your love, give your heart, give your spirit.
The world will say to you, "We need peace." Find your peace within, hold it sacred, bring it with you everywhere you go. Peace cannot be shared or created with others if we cannot first generate it within.
The world will say to you, "They are the enemy." Love enough to know that just because someone disagrees with you, it does not make them your enemy. You may not win an argument, you may not change a mind, but if you choose to, you can always achieve the triumph of radical empathy — an understanding of the heart.
The world will say to you, "We need justice." Investigate. Find truth beyond the stories you are told. Find truth beyond the way things seem. Ask, "Why?" Ask, "Is this fair?" Ask, "How did we get here?" Do this with compassion. Do this with forgiveness. Learn to forgive others. Start by truly learning how to forgive yourself. We are all more than our mistakes. We are all more than who we were yesterday. We are all deserving of our dignity. See yourself in others. Recognize that your justice is my justice, and mine is yours. There can be no liberation for one of us if the other is not free.
The world will say to you, "I am violent." Respond by saying, "I am not. Not with my words and not with my actions."
The world will say to you, "We need to heal the planet." Start by saying, "No, thank you. I don't need a plastic bag." Recycle, reuse. Start by picking up one piece of trash on your block.
The world will say to you, "There are too many problems." Do not be afraid to be a part of the solutions. Start by discussing the issues. We cannot overcome what we ignore. The more we talk about things, the more we see that the issues are connected because we are connected.
The world will say to you, "We need to end racism." Start by healing it in your own family.
The world will say to you, "How do we speak to bias and bigotry?" Start by having the first conversation at your own kitchen table.
The world will say to you, "There is so much hate." Devote yourself to love. Love yourself so much that you can love others without barriers and without judgment. When the world asks us big questions that require big answers, we have two options. One: to feel so overwhelmed or unqualified, we do nothing. Two: to start with one small act and qualify ourselves. I am the director of national security, and so are you. Maybe no one appointed us and there were no senate confirmations, but we can secure a nation. When you help just one person to be more secure, a nation is more secure. With just one outstretched hand that says, "Are you OK? I am here for you," we can transform insecurity into security.
We find ourselves saying to the world, "What should I do?" "What should we do?" The better question might be: "How am I showing up?" I ask the world for peace, but do I show up with peace when I see my family and friends? I ask the world to end hatred, but do I show up with love not only for those I know, but those I don't know? Do I show up with love for those whose ideas conflict with my own? I ask the world to end suffering, but do I show up for those who are suffering on my street corner? We say to the world, "Please change; we need change." But how do we show up to change our own lives? How do we show up to change the lives of the people in our communities?
James Baldwin said, "Everything now, we must assume is in our own hands; we have no right to assume otherwise." This has always been true.
No one nominated Harriet Tubman to her purpose, to her mission, to her courage. She did not say, "I'm not a congressman or the president of the United States, so how could I possibly participate in the fight to abolish a system as big as slavery?" She instead spent 10 years making 19 trips, freeing 300 people, one group of people at a time. Think about the children of those 300 people, the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren and beyond. Our righteous acts create immeasurable ripples in the endless river of justice.
Whether it's Hurricane Katrina, Harvey, Irma or Maria, people did not say, "There is so much damage. What should I do?" They got to work on what they could do. Those with boats got in their boats and started loading in every woman, man and child they came across. Near and far, people gave their dollars, they gave their cents, they gave their hearts, they gave their spirit.
We spend so much time thinking we don't have the power to change the world. We forget that the power to change someone's life is always in our hands. Change-making does not belong to one group of people; it belongs to all of us. You don't have to wait on anyone to tell you that you are in this. Begin. Start by doing what you can with what you've got, where you are and in your own way.
We don't have to be heroes, wear a uniform, call ourselves activists or get elected to participate. We just have to be brave enough to care.
Now, around the time Thelonious was born, I went to the birthday party of a man named Gene Moretti. It was his 100th birthday, which means he lived in the United States through the Depression, World War II, the struggle for workers' rights, the achievement of a woman's right to vote, the Civil Rights Movement, a man on the moon, the Vietnam War and the election of the first black president. I sat with him, and I said, "Gene, you have lived in America for 100 years. Do you have any advice during these current times?" He smiled and said to me simply, "Yes. Be good to as many people as possible." And as he danced with my mother, who is, by the way, half his age, in a room full of generations of his family and hundreds of people, many of whom traveled thousands of miles to be there to celebrate him, I realized that he had not just given me advice, he had given me the first step that every single one of us is capable of making if we want to create a real, wholehearted impact on the world around us, right now.
"Be good to as many people as possible."