Someone like Dr. Maya Angelou only graces the earth every 100 years or so. We encounter these “soul fireflies” so rarely, but when they show up, we instantly recognize them for the light that they bring.
They light up our world with their own brilliant light. They touch us and call us to find our own light. To raise the bar higher. To love a little deeper. To feel a little more connected. And to give just a little bit more of ourselves. Maya Angelou like Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa called us to be more. To do more. And to want more from our living.
Many stories, and tributes will be written over the coming days and weeks in honor of the woman we all fondly knew as “Dr. Maya”. That is as it should be. Yet, how fitting that a woman who dropped out of high school at age 14 (and later went back just before giving birth to her only son), would one day be presented with over 50 honorary degrees. Go on to teach American studies at one of the south’s most prestigious universities, and be known throughout the world as a poet laureate, author, lecturer, playwright, producer, dancer, singer, civil rights activist, counselor to presidents and a friend of humanity. Some may think it undeserved that someone who never attended college, would be bestowed such high academic honors and accolades. And become a heralded professor at Wake Forest University.
But “doctor” is a term so very appropriate for a woman who was in every way: a healer of others illnesses. Dr. Maya was a doctor of the human soul. And in this we should take heed to the powerful and healing guidance that she provided to us all not in the form of pills, elixirs or shots, but in the form of self-love, civility, humanity, integrity, forgiveness, connection and peace.
Here are five powerful lessons that Dr. Angelou taught us about the majesty and power of living a whole, healthy and fulfilled life:
1. Define yourself. Maya Angelou had a hard life. At times a very cruel life. And yet she refused to be defined or limited by her past. She refused to stay in a “cage” of another human’s making. She defined herself. She overcame her circumstance and she stretched herself beyond what anyone like her could have ever imagined they might achieve in one lifetime.
2. Raise your voice. When she penned, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings she was sharing her story with the world. A nobody from nowhere. Became a somebody that everybody would hear raising her voice and singing her song.
3. Treat people well. One of her most endearing sentiments was that people never forget how we make them feel. She was right. We can say things, and do things, but when we make people feel less than, or powerless we break something deep inside of them. And they may forgive us but they will never forget us. So we should do our best to treat people well. No matter what.
4. Never give up on your dreams. Dreams are the desires of our soul dancing at night. My words, but her meaning. Maya encouraged us to stay active, and engaged with life long past our so-called “prime.” She taught us that dreams have real power. That dreams can manifest in our lives long after we may believe that are gone. Keep dreaming. Dreams are oxygen to our souls.
5. Keep Living. Asked in an interview once what she thought of life and living, she launched into an amazing series of truths. Starting with the fact that you can learn a lot about people by how they handle a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas lights. She encouraged us to simply keep going. To look for second chances. To forgive generously. To open our hands. To throw something back at life. And most of all to love life.
There are many things that a life like Maya Angelou’s teaches us who are left behind. But I believe her most enduring legacy is that she gave us a perfect formula for resilience. For getting back up again and again no matter what. She taught us that a caged bird sings, not because he knows how or because he expects to be set free, but because he simply has a song in his soul. So it is with us. Many of us live as caged birds, waiting to sing. Waiting for the doors to be unlocked. To be set free. When in reality what we need is to sing loudly in the midst of our captivity. To raise our voices. Lift our souls. And share our song with the world.