For Black History Month, I read Howard Thurman’s autobiography, With Head and Heart.
Thurman was a prolific author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. For instance, his book, Jesus and the Disinherited has informed many a social justice activist. In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. carried a copy of this book “in his briefcase as he journeyed up and down the land.”
Reading his journey gave me insight into his wrestling with the tensions of the inward life and the public of life of a leader. His globally inclusive spirit and practice of culturally diverse ministry and social justice activism, for me, seemed to be a precursor in many ways to the contemporary racial reconciliation movement With Head and Heart gave me greater appreciation for his life and legacy.
There is one particular story in the book, out of so many, that I continue to reflect on. It entails a marvelous interplay between Thurman and his wife Sue. We don’t often hear about his wife. She was a gifted musician, writer and leader in her own right.
During their time in India, Mr. and Mrs. Thurman spent Christmas vacation with some faculty friends they had known back in college or seminary in the United States. The group of vacationers was intercultural — a mix of Indian and American friends.
Thurman describes their Christmas as spent “seven thousand feet above sea level, within the sight of Mount Everest.” They feasted at the “top of the world.” At the end of this Christmas feast, the Americans were invited to see the sun rise over “Kinchinjunga.” To get there would entail a “two-mile trek up Tiger Hill, a circuitous route that made a gradual ascent.” They’d have to leave at two in the morning to get to a spot where they would get a glimpse of the most glorious of sun rises.
Mrs. Thurman graciously declined. She chose to stay in the valley.
Thurman describes his exhausting trek. He noted that this was the first exercise he had done since leaving the ship some months prior, and being what he described as twenty pounds overweight, the trip up the mountain was grueling. He’d stop every five hundred feet or so and stop to stretch and rest. But he persisted and made it up the hill to a small pavilion where, in the abject darkness and quiet murmurs of tourists, he waited for the sun to rise.
He describes the sunrise in brilliant terms: “at first there was just a faint finger of pink in the sky, then suddenly the whole landscape burst into one burnished gold radiance: everything was clear. Beyond, he writes, “the solitary glowing peak of Everest rose.” The “glorious sight” lasted no more than a minute, but the experience and sight became etched in Thurman’s memory for a lifetime.
Upon his return, he teased Mrs. Thurman “If you hadn’t chosen a cozy sleep, and remained down in the valley, you would have gone up the mountain with me.”
And therein lies the question of reflection that Thurman’s family tossed about and that has stayed with me:
“Which is the truer view, that from the mountain top or that from the valley floor?”
You see, our lives seem to be a series of both mountain and valley experiences. I think we tend to celebrate the mountain top experiences as they represent the pinnacle of joy, of celebrations of successes. Thurman’s trek up the mountain paints a picture of the hard work and struggle to get to the top of the mountain and makes the celebration at the top even more poignant. We feel that we deserve the mountain top exhilaration because we worked so hard to get there , even when others did not even try. We get a little smug in our own self-adulations.
But what about the valleys? Is there value in the valley?
Mrs. Thurman wrote about her experience of remaining in the valley on the day Thurman trekked up the mountain. She writes:
“Two friends were spending some days in the region of Darjeeling. One of them had persuaded their companion-guide to go with him to the top of Tiger Hill, so that he might catch the vision of sunrise over the Himalayas.”
“The other friend remained in the valley. There were visits to make: A Buddhist priest with saffron robe would be sitting near a shop bazaar fingering his prayer wheel.”
“Friendly street vendors would be peddling their wares…There would be salutations to the sunrise in a thousand different languages.”
She proclaimed in her poem:
“I shall not climb Tiger Hill. The valley is so pleasant. The object of my search is in the valley.”
And she closed her meditation with:
“Once the goal or quest of an individual is made clear, it is revealed that whether he [or she] searches mountain or valley,” they will find their own “acre of diamonds” where they are.
I tend to associate valleys with tough times, but Mrs Thurman shows us it’s not necessarily the case. However you view valleys, know this: mountains and valley go together. You can’t have an apex or pinnacle unless there is a valley. And life is like that for so many of us—times of celebration and times of lament. Times of hard work leading to success and times spent in holding patterns waiting for the winds to shift. Times of activism and times of dormancy. Times of ecstatic euphoria and times of quiet waiting—being still.
In reality, the question is not which is better—the mountain or the valley—because indeed they both just are. The question must be reframed to Mrs. Thurman’s query: “what is the object of your search?” Can you find your “acres of diamonds” where you are—whether on the mountain top basking in an existential high or in the valley bumping up against the throng of bustling humanity?
What is the object of your search? Whether at the height of success or at the lows of setbacks and possibly disappointments—can you find your “acres of diamonds”—your hope, your inner strength and joy? Can you find the good? Can you trust that the “God of the mountain is also God of the valley?” (1 King 20:28)? Can you believe that you are where you are on purpose for a purpose?
You see, I got to thinking more about my heritage while reading this book this Black History Month. I hail from a people who have experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows. I come from a people who were royalty in the villages and cities of African countries. Yet I also come from people who were captured and dragged to Elmina castle, shackled to walls, raped in bedrooms of Portuguese and British soldiers. Taken through the “door of no return” placed upon ships and sailed through the Middle passage; placed on auction blocks and sold as commodities.
I come from people who through diverse tongues and tradition, drew upon their strength, tradition and faith as people created in God’s image and resisted and prayed and fought and persisted.
And I am the answer to their prayers. You are the answer to their prayers. We are the legacy for which they fought.
I come from people who celebrated the Emancipation on Jan 1, 1963 (and some on June 19, 1965)—a mountain top experience that led to enfranchisement in the country that had held them hostage. Yet I come from those same people who had their rights stripped away in Reconstruction and through years of Jim and Jane Crow and legalized segregation and discrimination.
Yet they persisted. They won rights for Black Americans and became the catalyst for other movements. They never lost sight of the object of their search — from the March on Washington to the celebration Grant Park Chicago of the first Black President of the US.
And that’s the truth for us as a people—we lived through both mountain top and valley experiences. And we must remember the object of our search. We must remember our purpose as a people. Each of us must draw upon our spiritual, cultural, communal and internal strengths.
I believe that is why Mr. and Mrs. Thurman’s reflection stayed with me. We at times live on both mountains and in valleys, and what makes the difference for me, and for you, is what we seek. For what we seek will affect what we see and experience. If we seek to continue the struggle for justice, inclusion and love, to serve the greater good, to become better humans, to reflect the divine calling we’ve been given, we will find the “acres of diamonds” that reveal purpose and bring joy right where we are.
For what we seek will affect what we see and experience.
Your perspective, your faith, will help you see the majesty of the mountain as well as the value of the valley. The sun rises on the mountain as well as in the valley.