What sustains me is this knowledge I have that it’s really the broken among us that can contribute a lot to our quest for full, equal justice. When you’re broken, you actually — you know something about what it means to be human. You know something about grace. You learned something about mercy. You learned something about forgiveness. It’s the broken among us that can teach us some things. And knowing that you don’t have to be perfect and complete gives you a way of moving through challenge that would be hard if you think that that’s not something that’s possible.
And so I tell my young staff, you can’t do this work, you can’t be in some of the painful places we’re in, you can’t hold children who’ve been abused, and not be impacted by that. You’re going to shed some tears. You are. And you’re gonna be overwhelmed, you’re going to get tired, you’re gonna get pushed down — all of those things are going to happen, and it doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean that you’re not up to the task. It doesn’t mean you’re incompetent or incapable. It just means you’re a human being. And that’s what I want: I want human beings.
And so what sustains me is, in part, this knowledge that I can’t always feel confident and sure and clear; that there are gonna be times when it’s uncertain what’s going to happen. And I’ve tried to appreciate that.
And I do feel, at times, lifted up by the spirit of people who have endured way more. I talked to John Lewis just before he passed away, and it was such an honor knowing him. And I was just saying to him, “I feel so privileged, as a result of what you did.” And I told him, “I’ve had hard days; I get death threats and all that kind of stuff. But I’ve never had to say, ‘My head is bloodied but not bowed,’ like you did.” And when you realize that those injuries created spaces that some of us could occupy, that were a little less violent, you begin to appreciate what you can do.
Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Above excerpted from On Being.