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It’s Alright to Cry

If you grew up in the United States and are close to my age, you remember the 1972 album (and the 1974 ABC-TV Special) Free to Be You and Me. Conceived by actress and author Marlo Thomas, the album and its corresponding flipbook saluted values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one’s identity. A major thematic message was that anyone—boy or girl—could achieve anything. Hard to imagine, but for most of America in 1972, this was still a radical concept. Remarkably, the album took a very long-dated view, in that the producers believed that creating positive social change starts with educating children so they will grow up to create a more tolerant, more accepting world. I think they were right.

One of the songs that resonated most with me was “It’s Alright To Cry.” It featured ex-football player Rosey Grier, who was known for his fierceness on the field of play. When he told all of us (especially little boys) that it was ok to cry, he sent a different message than we were hearing from the largely staid patriarchy of our own social structures. In fact, Rosey told us that it was not only alright to cry, but he also told us why (“crying gets the sad out of you”) and how we might feel afterwards (“it might make you feel better”).

Well, Rosey, I cried a few times this week. And while I don’t exactly feel better yet, I am getting there. I cried because I, like so many others, lost one of my heroes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Yesterday, as I sat at my home desk, I watched legions of people paying homage to RBG as she lie in state in the Capitol Building. While I was having my own personal reflections, my inbox and texts filled with messages from people asking me how I felt about the fanfare surrounding her passing. My initial response was that I felt conflicted for two reasons:

  • Much has been made of the fact that RBG broke one final barrier in her life by becoming the first woman to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. (Rosa Parks actually lay in honor as she was not a public servant.) While that is remarkable, I asked myself, why has it taken so long? Have there not been other equally impactful women who served the country in an official capacity? The answer is there have, but not very many and more than a few people noted that RBG’s service happened on the anniversary of the date that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in to serve on the High Court, thereby breaking the gender barrier in 1981. Although we have many miles to travel on the road to gender equity, I have great hope that all of the young women and men watching RBG’s service yesterday have a strong sense of what women can accomplish in the course of a lifetime. Echoes of the song “Parents are People” from Free to Be You and Me still ring in my head:  “Mommies can be almost anything they want to be.”  I can assure you that when Justice Ginsburg entered law school in 1954, just after the birth of her first child, some version of this yet-to-be-written lyric had to be in her head. Perhaps RBG inspired it.
  • Most people didn’t think about this, but RBG was also the first Jewish person to lie in state. According to Jewish burial law, which is quite sacrosanct, family members are instructed to bury the deceased within a day. I wondered what kind of pressure her family must have felt about allowing for a more public viewing instead of following Jewish tradition. Moreover, as Jews, we do not worship idols as we believe that every person is created in the image of G-d. There was an element of Justice Ginsburg’s remembrance that seemed to elevate her to something akin to sainthood. So the idea of placing the importance of a civil ceremony above a religious one made me a little uncomfortable. But then I read this article and I remembered that we Jews make exceptions all the time when it comes to burial. Of particular note, Rabbis over the ages have commented that it may be appropriate not to rush a burial in order to allow mourners to gather—in particular, female mourners. I have often observed that funerals and memorial services are actually for the living—the survivors. And there is no question that our country needed to collectively mourn RBG.  No matter your political leanings, in a year of so much divisiveness, as we suffer from so much isolation and loneliness, there was something comforting about watching the country come together over someone who fought for so long to do the right thing morally and who lived her life with such dignity.

Despite my conflicted feelings and my profound sadness about her death, I sought comfort in reading and re-reading many of the amazing commentaries and tributes to RBG. In doing so, I wanted to share a few of the reasons why Ruth Bader Ginsberg was (and still is) one of my personal heroes: 

  • Be humble, be assertive, be collaborative.  We live in a time when it seems that self-promotion is essential for getting ahead. RBG taught us that it is not only important to advocate for yourself but also to advocate for others. Her ascension throughout her career was the result of incredible work, but also her ability to build relationships with people who went to bat for her, even when she didn’t ask. Later in life, when she reflected on her own success, which she clearly owned, she was quick to acknowledge those who helped her along the way. Every leader knows that an important element of their success is the hard work and advocacy of others. The question is whether those leaders are confident enough in themselves to give credit to others. Humility is the manifestation of quiet confidence.  Brashness and self-puffery are instruments of the insecure egoist.    
  • Intimacy matters. Work hard to understand others who don’t often agree with you, but don’t lose yourself in the process. Until this week, I had forgotten that Justice Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia were close friends. In this wonderful opinion piece, Justice Scalia’s son, Eugene, recalls their intimacy and the fact that their spouses were also great friends. We all have people in our lives—friends, co-workers, family members—with whom we disagree. How do we continue to regard them with respect? How do we keep from losing intimacy that’s vital to moving beyond the conflict? The story of the Scalias and the Ginsburgs sheds some great light on that for all of us.
  • Patience is a virtue. Social changes happen slowly over the arc of one’s life.  RBG’s career spanned more than 65 years, from the time she enrolled in law school until the time she passed away. Over that time, her work transformed civil rights, gender and racial equity, and same sex marriage—just to name a few. There were ups and downs in her advocacy. There were times when society wasn’t moving fast enough for her, and she often found herself dragging the opinions of others along her path. And yet, in retrospect, she accomplished so much. What can we learn from this? For one, it takes time to bring about positive change. There are no shortcuts. It requires constant advocacy for what you believe in and actively seeking out thought partners to support your view. If RBG taught us anything it is that we, as a society, can evolve to a better place, but rarely at the speed we would like as individuals. So we need to take it one day and a time, celebrate the small victories as well as the large ones. We cannot get discouraged by setbacks; rather, we must use them as opportunities to rethink and regroup because the road to a better societal place is a long one. Rabbi Rebecca Holtzblatt, who delivered a eulogy for Justice Ginsburg at the Supreme Court on Wednesday, remarked, “As a lawyer, she won equality for women and men not in one swift victory, but brick by brick, case by case, through meticulous, careful lawyering.” In doing so, Ginsburg “changed the course of American law.”
  • Don’t wallow, make a difference. Much of RBG’s early career was filled with overcoming the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated world. It was not easy for her and, in many ways, it remains difficult for professional women to achieve the same level of success as their male counterparts. Justice Ginsburg once reflected on something that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said to her, “Suppose we had come of age in a time when women lawyers were welcome at the bar. You know what? Today we would have been retired partners from some large law firm. But because the route was not open to us, we had to find another way, and both end up on the United States Supreme Court.”  We all face career obstacles, some of us more than others; but we can all be trailblazers as we rethink the workplace. I marvel at how Justice Ginsburg didn’t squander the opportunity to make the world a better place as she progressed in her career. I am also awed by how she never seemed to let her “otherness” get in the way of her advocacy for those who were not like her—demonstrating that one’s personal struggles do not preclude a person from advocating for others who face different challenges. Finally, I admire how, late in her career, she recognized some of her own shortcomings by acknowledging that, despite her own personal success, she felt she should have done more in her immediate world to promote racial equity among her clerks.  

As we all brace for what is going to be a very rancorous and difficult month leading up to the Presidential election, I encourage us all to let our inner RBG shine. If we do, we will help others believe that we are still on the road to a better world. That’s what RBG is still saying to me.  I think that’s what she is saying to all of us.