Action is not Reaction
Yesterday my wife, son, and I went to see Just Mercy, the new movie starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. The film chronicles the true story of Walter McMillian (played by Foxx), a black man who spent almost six years on Alabama’s death row for a murder he didn’t commit, and Bryan Stevenson (played by Jordan), the public interest attorney who represented him and wrote the 2014 memoir on which much of the film is based. I loved the movie and was struck by how many important issues the film raised for me, like the continuing racial divide, the need for criminal justice reform, and why the U.S. is the only Western country that still has the death penalty. Watching it on Martin Luther King Day only further intensified the movie’s effect on me.
I also took notice of one very interesting fact. McMillian’s home and his trial are based in Monroeville, Alabama, the home town of Harper Lee, and the inspiration for the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, the center of Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The parallels between the events of the movie and Lee’s novel are apparent to anyone who has watched the movie and read the book. But for me, the most interesting parallel is the degree to which the lawyer Atticus Finch and his client Tom Robinson in the novel and Stevenson and McMillian in the movie demonstrate extraordinary emotional mastery.
One of my favorite parts of To Kill a Mockingbird was the interaction between Finch’s children, Scout and Jem, and Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, a neighbor of the Finch family. To walk into town, the children are forced to walk by the elderly Mrs. Dubose, who is almost always sitting on her front porch and who almost always assaults the children with a verbal tirade of insults, oftentimes about their father. When I first read the novel, I was amazed by how Atticus was able to not only tolerate Mrs. Dubose but to genuinely and unfailingly direct compassion and kindness towards her and to instruct his children to do the same. This kind of emotional mastery was on display during the movie. It was certainly on display for much of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life.
Most extraordinary people have the superpower of choosing when and how to express their emotions. They are able to maintain a level of equanimity in the face of even extreme injustice. Think about it. Mandela, Dr. King, Gandhi, Jesus. All masters of their emotions. They knew that such emotional mastery was essential to their callings.
If you want to lead an extraordinary life, you have to be a master of your emotions, not a prisoner to them. Where in your life can you heed the wisdom and lessons of the great leaders and master your emotions more skillfully? What would it look like to more consistently choose to act instead of automatically react to your environment?
Last week I declared 2020 the year of Action (not Reaction). Let’s choose to act in a way that masters our emotions and, in so doing, honors the legacy of the many great leaders who have taught us exactly what that looks like.