The Light We Carry

by Michelle Obama

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Last Updated on February 21, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856

The Light We Carry is a work of nonfiction written by former First Lady and Harvard Law graduate Michelle Obama. The 2022 book describes how to cultivate resilience in times of uncertainty through a unique combination of memoir, historical analysis, and self-help techniques.

The author opens the narrative with an anecdote from her youth, explaining that her father suffered from multiple sclerosis throughout her childhood. As his illness progressed, he walked first with a cane, then a pair of crutches, and eventually, a motorized scooter. As she watched him rely on each new tool, Michelle realized the value of using such tools to navigate difficult situations. Now, she sees this moment as an analogy that applies to the tools she has developed to cope with modern uncertainties and anxieties. 

Reflecting on the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic—and especially the many ways in which it compounded the already-present inequities of modern life—Michelle shares a surprising new coping mechanism: knitting. Confronted with the unsettling stillness of isolating at home during a global public health crisis, she started watching knitting tutorials on YouTube and attempted to follow along, tentatively at first, and then with confidence, heartened by the community she sees on screen.

As she becomes comfortable using the knitting needles, she finds that something unexpected has happened: rather than her brain telling her hands what to do, her hands have taken charge, and her brain contentedly follows along. Realizing that this is the first time she has found respite from her anxieties since the beginning of isolation, she recognizes the importance of finding value in the small and personal rather than the big. Big problems, she explains, will always be there. The nature of these problems might change over time, but they will always be there. Small tasks, such as knitting, may not solve these problems, but neither does worrying; these tasks, at least, offer a brief and necessary respite.

The narrative continues as Michelle draws on personal stories to demonstrate the techniques that help her recalibrate in times of duress. She encourages readers to examine fear critically, noting that it can sometimes be a useful tool. There are, of course, times when fear is an indicator of danger and should be heeded. However, what a person interprets as “fear” is often apprehension from stepping outside one’s comfort zone. Fear can be a negative feeling, but it often is a sign of critical growth, learning, and personal development. 

She continues, emphasizing the importance of “starting kind.” It is a valuable approach when engaging with others but is also an important tool for engaging with yourself. When you “start kind” to others, you engage them in good faith and show you value them as people. When you “start kind” to yourself, you afford yourself that same grace.

Michelle considers the difficulty in being an “only”: the only member of an identity group among a majority of others. She focuses on the impact this has on a person who is constantly subject to being singled out and notes that it is an extremely alienating and isolating experience that can occur across many axes. Someone might be an “only” because of their race, gender, body type, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or any number of other reasons. It is, she notes, uniquely difficult to be an “only” for whom there is no public representation. If you don’t see successful people who look like you, she warns, you may never be able to picture yourself achieving success.

Across a series of sequential chapters, Michelle examines her closest relationships. She is candid about their obstacles and the hard work it takes to maintain them over time, writing about her many friends; her marriage to former U.S. president Barack Obama; her mother, Marian Robinson; and the multitude of people who have facilitated her professional and personal success. While each of these relationships has nuances and complications, they all share a critical element: everyone involved is committed to the dynamic at hand, willing to be vulnerable and share their most authentic self, and determined to put effort into maintaining and caring for the relationship.

Reflecting on the professional world, Michelle considers the unique challenges faced by women and minorities in the workforce. It is, she reminds the reader, never as easy to be a high-achieving professional woman as the glossy profiles of female CEOs imply. Moreover, no one gets there alone. This is especially true for Black women, she adds, whose conduct is scrutinized at every turn and constantly evaluated in a misplaced attempt to prove that they do not belong.

She closes the narrative by examining what it means to “go high,” a catchphrase she accidentally coined during a 2016 speech in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential run at the Democratic National Convention. People often misconstrue the phrase, imagining it to be a command to be nice and complacent or to temper one’s anger. Here, she corrects the misconception. “Go high,” she explains, means to operate with integrity, be resourceful and intentional with your anger, and use your energy to ensure you act honorably and within your moral code. 

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