60 years ago, on Dec. 1, 1965, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white rider on a Montgomery bus and sat her way right into the history books. We all know the tale.
Many of us have taken plenty of feel-good lessons from it about being brave and taking a stand. Most of the lessons focus on the huge impact of her apparently small action. But there’s also an important life lesson to be learned from the action itself.
Rosa Parks sparked a motion by refusing to move.
Sometimes, choosing to sit still is the most impactful action we can take. Sometimes what starts the movement that we so desperately need is actually our repudiation to be moved.
It seems so counterintuitive. We’ve been taught that to change things, “were supposed to” exert energy, “were supposed to” fighting inertia, and somehow force things to change with our motion by tearing things down with brute force or, in some cases, running the other direction. So how can stillness actually spark radical change?
I once went to a yoga class where the mantra was “I am like the sunshine. I am big, I am bright, and I will not be moved . ”
It was based on the premise that all the other planets revolve around the sun, the center of our galaxy. I loved this idea and said it to myself every time I needed to feel grounded and resolute, confident that despite the chaos whirling around me, I did not have to move. I could stand peacefully and firm, like the immovable sunshine, in who I was and what I believed.
I held on to that mantra for quite awhile until I discovered that the sun actually does move. It’s simply substantially harder to recognize and watch the movement because of its relation to all the planets spinning around it. In other terms, even when the sun looks like it isn’t moving, it is.
Ready to get deep? Go with me here.
Rosa Parks was the sun that day.
In her refusal to move seats, she appeared to be still even though a huge, important switching truly was taking place. As a result, she forced others to move around her. White bus patrons, police, supporters, society, and ultimately, the law.
It’s clear to see how that lesson relates to activism and social change. Period and time again, from sit-ins at lunch counters and college campuses, to die-ins on the floor of city hall, we’ve watched how the act of being seemingly still and not moving from the scene of injustice can interrupt and ultimately transform unjust systems.
But what if we also applied that principle to our own lives?
So often we believe that in order to stimulate dramatic change, in order to be treated how we deserve to be treated, we have to be the ones to metaphorically move; to change something about ourselves.
We madly move in the face of difficulty, disrespect, or opposition: We cease the job, we relocate, we mitigate our demands, we adjust our appearances, expectations, or approach, we “fall back” to avoid the confrontation.
But if we’re honest, oftentimes our actions are the same thing as moving to the back of the bus. We believe that if “weve been” quiet, if we are accommodating, if we do what is asked of us, if we remove ourselves from the situation entirely, we will either win the respect of the individuals who stand in our style or at the very least, we will make our lives easier.
Ultimately, we do this because we are afraid of the results of being ourselves, standing in our truth, and taking up the space that we deserve.
But what if we finally recognized that the cost of moving is actually greater to our identity and our souls than the cost of refusing to move no matter how scary the immediate consequences is a possibility?
What if the critical behavior change that will win us our liberty is eventually transgressing the pattern of adjusting, accommodating, and moving in the face of opposition?
What if we behaved like the sun? What if by “not moving” we were actually changing not only our own view but everything around us ?
Sounds good, right? But lessons like this are often easier said than done.
How do you know when refusing to move is the right action to take?
Well, here are some tips, straight from Rosa’s playbook:
Refuse to move … when you have a plan. Despite the children’s storybook version of events( “Rosa Parks spontaneously decided that she was too tired to move out of her seat! ” ), we now know that her action that day was about as strategic as it gets. She was not the first to refuse her seat, but it had been decided that this was the moment for someone to try again and that she was the right person to do it. The NAACP knew that Rosa’s arrest would be the example that best allow for a successful court case.
You should always think about the impact that standing firm and refusing to move could make and plan for how you are able to deal with the consequences, regardless of which route it turns out.
Refuse to move … when you’ve done everything else and you’re tired. There’s a myth that Rosa Parks was tired after having worked a long day and that her physical fatigue is why she refused to stand. The truth is that she was indeed tired, but not the route most people guess. From her 1992 autobiography “Rosa Parks, My Story”:
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Parks’ response to the system of segregation did not begin on the bus that day. She had marched and protested many times before, but on that day, she knew that merely a pure act of defiance would spur the change that needed to take place. The same could be true for you. If you have adjusted and changed and run and objected enough times, refusing to move might just be the ultimate act , not only of defiance, but of freedom.
Refuse to move … when it is morally right. Sitting in her seat wasn’t only a randomly selected act of protest. It was, above all, right. Rosa had principle on her side. And there is no better reason to refuse to move than when principles, values, and morals support your presence and your position.
Rosa Parks’ action will, of course, be remembered forever as one of heroism and will, an act that triggered a turning point in the American civil rights movement.
But it should also be an action that we turn to repeatedly as a reminder of the power of not giving in, of being still.
She showed us that great things can happen when we stay on the bus and refuse to be moved . You, me, and the sunshine, we rise each morning with the same potential and power. And we, too, can change the world.
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