During my second to last year of college, I had the honor and privilege of attending a service trip to Alabama with the Center for Service in Action at my university. While on the service trip, I had the opportunity to serve the community of Selma, Alabama. I helped to paint a local school and got to work with a class of adorable, little four-year-olds at a pre-kindergarten school, and boy did those kids steal my heart. I also got to do a training on Kingian non-violent conflict resolution, where we talked about the importance of community and connectedness with others to understand their plight. The service trip was most definitely an enlightening and deeply impactful experience.
While I was in Alabama with my service group, I also had the opportunity to visit some historical locations and museums to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement. After visiting the 16th Street Baptist Church, where in 1963 a bomb exploded and killed four young, African-American girls, we visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
The Civil Rights Institute showed the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and was extremely heart-wrenching. I remember towards the end of the self-guided tour when I saw the actual belongings of the young kids who died in the church bombing, I could feel the tears well up in my eyes. One of the museum guides approached me and another girl in my service group and began to talk to us about our reactions to seeing everything in the museum. As soon as I started talking, I just lost it. The girl in my service group was crying as well. We told the guide that we couldn’t understand why people could do these heinous things to other people. It was heartbreaking.
The guide consoled us and told us that it was perfectly alright to feel these emotions. “My sweet girls,” she told us. “Sometimes people do bad things in ignorance. They don’t know any better, but we must teach them. We must teach them love, and that love overpowers everything.”
After hugging us for a while, and helping us move through the emotions, we thanked the guide for comforting and talking with us, and we proceeded to the exit to wait for the rest of our group to finish looking through the various exhibits.
We waited in the gift shop. It was there that I met the most miraculous and amazing woman whom I will never forget for the rest of my life. It was only with her remarkable wisdom that only comes with such age that she taught me the most valuable lesson of life.
We talked to her about what we took away from the museum. She told us how she had lived in Birmingham for nearly her entire life, and told us about her childhood in the city during the Civil Rights Movement.
“I remember sitting on the back of the bus,” she told us. “I remember the protests. I remember the church bombing.”
We had asked her how she coped with all of these horrible things that were happening to her, her family, and the community.
“You see, I learned to put those things behind me. If I dwelled on the horrible things, I could never move on. It would consume me,” she said. “Instead, I made an important choice in my life; I chose to be better, not bitter.”
We asked her what she meant by that, and she elaborated.
“I decided to not let it get to me. I decided to not let those things make me become consumed with hate. I decided that I would let it inform me on how to become a better person, and how to make my community a better place. I decided to rise above it, not stoop to that level.”
Her words just hit my heart with such a force. Be better, not bitter.
This woman had to endure things that no person should ever have to endure, and yet she did not let it make her full of anger and hate. She did not let it get the best of her.
She chose to be better, not bitter.
As we were leaving, I told her that her words impacted me more than she will ever know.
Recently, I had endured a very difficult situation in my life and had become consumed by it. The event evoked some very dark memories from my past that I had worked so hard to suppress, and when it brought on a sort of déjà vu, it really took a toll on me. It filled me with anger, frustration, sadness, and bitterness. I just couldn’t move past it. But then I remembered this wise woman’s words. Be better, not bitter.
So I decided to confront the problem head-on by talking to the person that had caused the hurt. ‘Be better, not bitter,’ I told myself. Through talking, I was able to find resolution and peace. decided that this event would not affect me anymore. I would not let it get the best of me. I would put it behind me, and remain positive moving forward. I would make sure that I only continued to be better, not bitter.