“Life Goes On:” A Meditation from Howard Thurman


I have previously written about the significance of mystic Howard Thurman (1889-1991) as a key “forefather” to American nonviolence, and my own, intimate relationship to the prophetic and transformative powers of his writings.[1]

Thurman was a prolific writer and speaker. In addition to his better-known work Jesus and the Disinherited, which laid the groundwork for interpretations of nonviolence utilized during the Civil Rights Movement, Thurman wrote a vast array of sermons, poems, and meditations.[2] I am particularly grateful for Thurman’s writing diligence right now. The suspicious death of 28-year-old Sandra Bland in Texas, captured succinctly in the hashtags #WhatHappenedToSandraBland and #IfIDieInPoliceCustody, and the residue of the killings of the Charleston Nine at Emanuel AME Church last month have yet again rendered me at a loss for words. I now re-turn to Thurman’s musings from Meditations of the Heart for some semblance of solace:

“Life Goes On”[3]

During these turbulent times we must remind ourselves repeatedly that life goes on.

This we are apt to forget.

The wisdom of life transcends our wisdoms;

the purpose of life outlasts our purposes;

the process of life cushions our processes.

The mass attack of disillusion and despair,

distilled out of the collapse of hope,

has so invaded our thoughts that what we know to be true and valid seems unreal and ephemeral.

There seems to be little energy left for aught but futility.

This is the great deception.

By it whole peoples have gone down to oblivion

without the will to affirm the great and permanent strength of the clean and the commonplace.

Let us not be deceived.

It is just as important as ever to attend to the little graces

by which the dignity of our lives is maintained and sustained.

Birds still sing;

the stars coniine to cast their gentle gleam over the desolation of the battlefields,

and the heart is still inspired by the kind word and the gracious deed.

There is no need to fear evil.

There is every need to understand what it does,

how it operates in the world,

what it draws upon to sustain itself.

We must not shrink from the knowledge of the evilness of evil.

Over and over we must know that the real target of evil is not destruction of the body,

the reduction to rubble of cities;

the real target of evil

is to corrupt the spirit of man and to give his soul the contagion of inner disintegration.

When this happens,

there is nothing left,

the very citadel of man is captured and laid waste.

Therefore the evil in the world around us must not be allowed to move from without to within.

This would be to be overcome by evil.

To drink in the beauty that is within reach,

to clothe one’s life with simple deeds of kindness,

to keep alive a sensitiveness to the movement of the spirit of God

in the quietness of the human heart and in the workings of the human mind—

this is as always the ultimate answer to the great deception.

May Thurman’s words remind us of the precious value of life, help us celebrate it, and protect our souls from the “contagion of inner disintegration” during these turbulent times.

[1] See also The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman: Volume 1: My People Need Me, June 1918-March 1936, edited by Walter E. Fluker (Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 2009); Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet by Luther E, Smith, Jr. (Friends United Press, 2007); Mysticism and Social Change: The Social Witness of Howard Thurman by Alton B. Pollard (Peter Lang, 1992); and listen to the audiobook, The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman: A Visionary of Our Time (Sounds True, 2010).

[2] A short list includes Disciplines of the Spirit (Friends United Press, 1963); The Creative Encounter (Friends United Press, 1972); The Search for Common Ground (Friends United Press, 1986); and With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (Mariner Books, 1981).

[3] Excerpted from Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press, 1981), 110-11.

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Rhon Manigault-Bryant

LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. She is the author of Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (Duke University Press), and co-author of Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions (Palgrave Macmillan) with Tamura A. Lomax and Carol B. Duncan. You can find her adding colorful commentary to the digital universe via Twitter @DoctorRMB.