“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”
~ Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Annie Johnson (1928-2014), was an American author, poet and civil rights activist. This accomplished lady wore many different career hats throughout her lifetime and won many awards. She worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the US civil rights movement, during the 1960s, until their untimely deaths. She was one of just two poets honored to read one of her poems at a presidential inauguration ceremony. Robert Frost was the first at John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration in 1960, and Maya Angelou read at Bill Clinton’s twenty-three years later.
She was an amazing lady with an outstanding mind and, judging from this passage, she brooked no nonsense. She survived a traumatic childhood as she was raped when seven years old, and then was further traumatized when, after she identified her molester, he was murdered by her uncles after the courts gave him a punishment of just one day in prison. She did not speak after that for five years – lest her words kill another man. She not only survived this childhood but she went on to become one of the most accomplished African-American ladies in history! Yes, amazing and outstanding!
Maya Angelou was a lady of action as can be seen in the very first sentence. “If you don’t like something, change it.” This is direct and to the point. She was not a person who stood on the sidelines during the civil rights movement, she was an activist. As a black person, she would not accept being treated as a second-class citizen, or worse, by white Americans; so she got busy and worked to change that. She could have heaved a great sigh of resignation and proclaimed to all who might listen, “But what can I do about it?” No, she wasn’t one to make excuses and cower in a corner when the going got rough.
It is clear from her next sentence, that she was also a realist. What do you do if you can’t change a situation that you don’t like? Her answer: “… change your attitude.” This lady watched two close friends who were leaders of the civil rights movement, assassinated while in their prime. As I pondered this, and thought back to those times, when I was a young teenager, I remember the shock and the anger that I felt. Now fast-forward to the present and consider the young black men shot dead by white cops in the last few months. More shock, outrage and pain. The anger and desire for vengeance is palpable and not unjustified… but, listen to the voice of Maya Angelou “… change your attitude.”
Her words are calling us to turn our backs on our base desire for a violent response. As a student of history, I’m only too aware that the old adage, violence begets more violence, is only too true. It becomes a never ending cycle of bloodshed, loss and agony. So what do you do with these feelings? A favourite saying of my youngest son comes to mind… “… sit on your hands and wait for the feeling to go away.” I see that as a precursor to an actual change in attitude. First we calm ourselves… breathe… breathe… then think. I need to change my attitude so that I turn away from a violent response and turn towards a positive plan of action that will have a far greater chance of effecting real and substantial change.
No one knows better than I, just how difficult it is to change your attitude about something you don’t like. It doesn’t mean to just accept it. No, that’s not what Maya Angelou is saying at all! If you can’t change something, change the way you look at it so that you can continue to be an effective person. Otherwise, I just leave myself wide open to becoming an angry and embittered man. It is all to easy to allow your emotions to take your brain out of gear and run amok!
Finally, we are admonished: “Don’t complain.” I have to admit that this short, terse sentence made a strong impact when I first read it. Isn’t this one of our favourite pastimes? We Canadians proudly assert that it is our God-given right to complain about the weather! Maybe so, maybe not… but what good can possibly come of it? For me, complaining precludes a more productive response… action. Can I change the cold, snowy six-month winters here? Of course not! But I can change my attitude by changing my reaction to circumstances that I dislike and using them as different opportunities to exercise as well as to help other people and do some good in the world.
Maya Angelou speaks to us about what is important in confronting issues or problems in our lives that we don’t want to accept. The key is action to bring about change – and sometimes the change that needs to happen is within ourselves. Not every rock in our life path can be removed; sometimes we need to alter our way of looking at it to make it work in our favour. For me, the important thing to remember is that changes in our world or within ourselves can happen only if we make it so. We are the masters of our own lives!