When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We've braved the belly of the beast, We've learned that quiet isn't always peace
Even though January 20thwas formally President Joe Biden’s and Vice President Kamala Harris’ celebratory day, it was quickly clear who the actual star walking away was: Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate who presented her sweeping, lyrical work “The Hill We Climb.” I am sure her name is recognizable to most. Here in the United States, that’s a certainty. But, I’ve even seen many international friends and news accounts share her words across various social platforms.
While the poem was, again formally, speaking to an American audience with an American history*, what stood out the most to me are the common, shared themes of restorative principles that run throughout the piece. Surely, they’re applicable to addressing the harms within and throughout the United States. But, they’re also relevant to any place or situation where conflict is present. I would like to highlight just a few of those principles here, though the entire poem is well-worth a read, or even better, a watch, in order to capture all of Gorman’s dynamic expressions.
First, throughout the poem is the idea of wanting and waiting for light while trapped under shade. This is evident in the opening lines, included at the top of this post. The shade mentioned could be the feeling and the effects of on-going struggle, exhaustion or consuming anger, brought by loss, loneliness, a sense of injustice, or being left unseen and unheard. Many who come for restorative support start in this shaded place, be it from issues of addiction, neighbor disputes, a housing crisis, or social isolation. They’re in the “belly of the beast,” as Gorman says- tired, frustrated, and possibly left feeling that there are no options left.
But, it’s important to recognize that shade isn’t total, unending darkness. Shade is a shadow and to have a shadow there must be some light behind the object casting it. Light continues to exist. Relief, rest, restoration is possible. The question, then, is how is it reached? Gorman has some ideas.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
The focus, she suggests, cannot be continuing to devote time, energy, and resources to the source of the harm, like picking a scab, but choosing to look to a new future for ourselves and those around us. To even consider different ways forward, away from the darkened cover of shade, is a brave act. Those who participate in restorative work aren’t giving up, but are standing up for what they know can be better. Gorman rightfully adds that that doesn’t mean the past is ignored or forgotten, but is honored and acknowledged, shown in these next lines:
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true, that even as we grieved, we grew, that even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired, we tried
The past is not undone, but does not have to dictate what the future will be. Instead, she suggests,
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
This was the passage that struck me the hardest when I first heard Gorman speak. What does it mean to combine the act of mercy with might, or power? How are they guided by what is right? To begin, in restorative practice we can think of mercy in several ways. It can be shown as having patience for the other party or making an attempt at empathy- to understand where everyone comes from and the perspectives they bring to the table. It can be choosing what is best for the whole, not just oneself. It can also look like forgiveness or reconciliation, given or requested, though within a particular context and agreement. Might is the willingness to act. It is recognizing each party’s capabilities. It is showing up and participating. It is having the difficult conversations, making plans, and following through, even if they then need to be revised. To then fold mercy and might in with right, or what is right, is to be guided by truth, communal values, and the needs of the situation to move forward with love and care.
Gorman’s words are not offering a “one-size fits all” solution to address every source of shade, similarly to how there isn’t one formula to solve every conflict. Instead, it’s the principles behind the practices that can be carried forth, like a tool-kit to draw from. The last tool I recognized, though it’s present throughout the entire piece, is that of hope. Gorman reminds us that hope is the key motivator that allows us to notice that things aren’t the way they could and should be, and encourages us to take a step, even if it’s small at first, into the light that has always been there To claim it, for ourselves, for others, and for our legacy. It’s fitting, then, to close this reflection with the words Gorman crafted to finish her poem, which says so brightly:
For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it.
If only we're brave enough to be it.
By choosing restorative work not only does one welcome light into their own place of shade, but they can become a hopeful symbol of light for others as well.
Bethany Luzny interned with CRJI and is trained in restorative practices. She earned an MA from Queens University Belfast in conflict transformation and currently works in refugee resettlement in the United States.
* This statement is made with the full acknowledgment that the United States began and continues to exist as occupied land with a guiding, majority view from the settler-colonialist perspective that should rightly be questioned and critiqued. Hereis one such take on the inauguration.