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Book Club - The Light We Carry


Cover of the book The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama

This month for our book club, we read The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama. The book is a follow up to the former First Lady’s popular memoir, Becoming.


After all the uncertainty and upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic, Obama wanted to share some of her tools for handling stress and change. With her experience attending Ivy League schools, working at a top Chicago law firm, non-profit organizations, and as First Lady, she’s had plenty of practice with stress and change.


I haven’t read her first book, Becoming (although it’s on my list), so I’m not sure how many of the stories she shared are new, but I really enjoyed getting to read about her life. Obama isn’t shy about discussing her struggles or the pressure she’s felt to live up to expectations throughout her life. Despite being one of the most powerful women in the world, her tone is relatable and humble.


Here are our key takeaways from The Light We Carry.


1) In times of trouble, find small victories


In the first chapter of the book, Obama talks about how she felt helpless and overwhelmed during the beginning of the pandemic. Everything we knew seemed to be falling apart and there wasn’t anything we could do about it. She decided to take up knitting as a new hobby. It ended up becoming one of her favorite ways to relieve stress.


Did knitting solve any of the problems? No, of course not. But knitting did provide a way to clear her head. Focusing on the patterns and rhythm of clicking needles allowed her mind to wander and come to terms with the difficulties she faced.


You don’t necessarily have to take up knitting to get the same benefits. Her point is that when we’re up against big things, finding something small to conquer can help ease the anxiety and fear. You have little control over problems like natural disasters, global hunger, or wars, so focus on what you can control.


Maybe you clean out your closet, or try making homemade bread for the first time, or run a mile without stopping to rest. Accomplishing something, no matter how small, and even if it’s only for yourself, gives you the strength to keep going in the face of hard times.

“It’s these small rearrangements that help us untangle the bigger knots. It’s the ‘just because’ practices that feed our soil. Small victories, I’ve found, can also accumulate. One little boost often begets another, one act of balance creates more. We can steer ourselves by degrees toward greater action and impact, sometimes just by trying one new thing, completing one seemingly insignificant task.”

2) Find your support system


While it may seem like successful women are somehow simply better than the rest of us, Obama makes it clear that she wouldn’t have gone far without support from countless people throughout her life. This includes her parents, her husband, her “kitchen table” of friends, mentors, and staff members.


Not everyone is fortunate enough to have an encouraging family like she did, but we can all find friends, a partner, or even coworkers that provide a support system. It doesn’t really matter who it is or whether you have 2 or 12 members of your crew.


The people in your life that love you for who you are, flaws and all, help you feel seen and accepted in the world. Obama shares that research has shown a strong social circle helps improve your health too - boosting our ability to ward off anxiety, depression, and even heart disease.


It’s not always easy to find friends though, especially as a busy adult. Obama suggests that even small interactions can turn into a friendship over time. She tells the story of how she made one of her friends after they both started chatting in a hair salon. Instead of spending “down” time on our phones, maybe we can reach out to those around who might be feeling the same awkward loneliness too.


Your support system will likely change over time. People will come and go during the seasons of your life. They may stay for months or years. That's okay. The makeup and size of your social circle will change as you do. The important thing is to have people in your life that can be there for you.

3) Go high, even when it’s hard


During the 2016 election season, Michelle Obama famously said, “When they go low, we go high,” in her speech at the Democratic National Convention. Republican nominee Donald Trump had been attacking her husband, Barack, for years by questioning the legitimacy of his birth certificate and other racist insinuations. She was calling on the country to rise above these attempts to play dirty and divide people.


Although her plea was ultimately unsuccessful and Donald Trump was elected to the presidency that year, she still strongly insists on “going high” in her book. She explains why it is so important to her - “It’s about taking an abstract and usually upsetting feeling and working to convert it into some sort of actionable plan, to move through the raw stuff and in the direction of a larger solution…Going high is about resisting the temptation to participate in shallow fury and corrosive contempt and instead figuring out how to respond with a clear voice to whatever is shallow and corrosive around you. It’s what happens when you take a reaction and mature it into a response.”


Going high means leaving space for reason between your emotion and your response. It means actually taking action, not just yelling about how angry something makes you. It’s easy to complain to a friend about something that upsets you, but it’s a lot harder to take steps to improve the situation causing the problem.


But in the end, it’s our actions that matter most. Obama talks about how we may feel good about ourselves for liking or sharing a post on social media, but does that really make a difference? Are you really putting in the work of change? Or are you just putting on a performance?


Going high is usually not the easy route. This final chapter of the book was a good reminder to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. No matter how bad things may seem, going high is always the way that’s really worth it.


We live in a world that’s full of change. There’s no blueprint for navigating the challenges that may come up on any day. But we can fill our toolbox with ideas, like the ones mentioned above, that will help make it easier to handle those challenges when they do arrive.


I want to end this post by sharing one last piece of wisdom from The Light We Carry.

“How do we right ourselves inside a storm that shows no sign of abating? How do we find stability when the air around us remains unsettled and the grounds seems to shift constantly beneath our feet? I think it begins, in part, when we are able to find a sense of agency and purpose inside of ongoing flux, when we remember that small power can be meaningful power. Casting a vote matters. Helping a neighbor matters. Lending your time and energy to a cause you believe in matters. Speaking up when you see a person or group of people being denigrated or dehumanized matters. Showing your gladness for another soul, be it your child, or a coworker, or even someone you pass on the street, matters. Your small actions become an instrument for your own visibility, your own steadiness and sense of connection. They can help remind you that you, too, matter.”

What did you think of the book? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


Next month, we will be reading Finding Me by Viola Davis.

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