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Book Summary: The Light We Carry – Overcoming in Uncertain Times

In The Light We Carry (2022) #TheLightWeCarry, former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, tackles complex questions about community, identity, and relationships with trademark warmth and honesty. Obama believes we all carry a light inside us – in this book, she tells us how to shine that light so it illuminates the potential for hope and healing, and pathways toward a better world.

Book Summary: The Light We Carry - Overcoming in Uncertain Times

Content Summary

Genres
Introduction: Find purpose and courage with wisdom from Michelle Obama.
Don’t be afraid to let your light shine
Shine your light outward into friendships and community
Don’t let darkness dim your light
Summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Genres

Motivation, Inspiration, Personal Development, Biography, Memoir, African American General Biography
African American Women’s Biography, , First Ladies & Families – Biography, Self-Improvement, Community, Culture, Memoirs of Women, Personal Transformation

Introduction: Find purpose and courage with wisdom from Michelle Obama.

Are you feeling increasingly isolated in a society that’s moving away from in-person connection?

Are you feeling shaken by upheaval, in your personal life or on the political stage?

Are you feeling anxious about the way the world is headed – and powerless to help?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re not alone. Former first lady Michelle Obama hears from people like you every day. People who have heard her talk about using her voice to call out systemic problems and learned how she leans on deep friendships when she feels overwhelmed. People who’ve felt inspired by her famous response to the Republican presidential campaign’s smear tactics in 2016 – “When they go low, we go high!”

But they also want to know…how? How do you use your voice to tackle the issues that matter to you most? How, in an increasingly divided society, do you form and nourish connections that can sustain you? How do you go high?

Perhaps that’s something you’ve been wondering about, too.

Obama doesn’t exactly have the answers. She acknowledges that we’re living in a world that can feel scary and out of control. That we negotiate every day with institutions that can seek to disenfranchise or silence us. That living with authenticity, boldness, and energy is hard. Really hard.

But she does have the firmly held belief that there’s a light inside all of us – a light of hope, joy, and empathy. The brighter we let our light shine, the better we can see the potential for deeper connection, greater understanding, and a fairer world.

Now, Obama is ready to share the strategies she’s used to kindle her light – and how she thinks you might be able to spark the light you carry, too.

Don’t be afraid to let your light shine

Inside you is a light – it’s a spark completely unique to you: your talents, your determination, your curiosity. What’s stopping you from letting that light shine out fully? Is it fear?

We all experience fear. The world is legitimately scary: pandemics, shootings, and ecological crises are all part of our shared reality. On top of that, many media outlets seek to actively exploit your fear, with news stories designed to keep you feeling anxious and afraid.

How can you overcome that fear?

Well, over the years, Michelle Obama has learned a secret about fear. In the White House, she rubbed shoulders with icons. People like Nelson Mandela and Maya Angelou. People who have overcome incredible challenges and spoken up in the most courageous ways imaginable. And here’s the thing: though these people appear fearless, they’re not. They all get scared. They all get nervous.

Your fears aren’t going away. If you want to let your light shine, you need to learn to live comfortably with them. Don’t let fear stop you. Let it guide you.

Here’s an insight into how Obama has learned to live with fear:

When she was four, Obama was cast in her church Christmas play. She was thrilled. There was just one problem. On the day of the dress rehearsal, there was a creepy looking animatronic turtle on the stage. It terrified her. She tearfully told her Great Aunt Robbie, who was directing the play, that she wouldn’t go onstage with the turtle.

Robbie told Obama the turtle wasn’t going anywhere. Obama could go onstage in her beautiful new dress and twirl for the audience. Or she could sit in the audience with her mother, and miss her big star turn. See, acting to avoid fear makes us feel safe – but there are consequences. Weighing up those consequences, Obama decided she wanted to perform more than she wanted to avoid the scary turtle. So that’s what she did.

When fear dictates our decisions, we miss out on a lot. We choose conformity and sameness over challenges and surprises. Keep making those choices and we can grow threatened by anyone who looks or thinks differently to us. When you feel afraid, ask yourself – am I genuinely scared? Or am I just trying to avoid exploring a new possibility?

Obama isn’t afraid of turtles anymore. But those “turtle moments” certainly haven’t gone away – in fact, sometimes they show up when she’s feeling safest and happiest. In 2006, for example. Obama had a great relationship with her husband, Barack, and two young daughters she adored. She was fulfilled in her career and loved living in Chicago. Then Barack told her he was thinking about running for president. What’s more, he’d only run if Michelle was okay with this decision – she had the final say.

Faced with this decision, Obama’s internal monologue went into overdrive. A presidential campaign would bring with it intense scrutiny of her family, stress, and upheaval. A successful campaign would mean a move to Washington and a completely new life. Saying no to Barack’s proposition would be a relief – it would mean things would stay the same, safe and comfortable.

In the years since 2006, Obama’s gotten better and better acquainted with that internal monologue. She calls it her fearful mind. When it starts talking, she talks back to it. When it tells her she’s not good enough, she asks it why not? When it tells her she shouldn’t tackle a problem, she asks it who else will if not me? She tries to deal consciously with her fearful mind, breaking down all its negative assumptions.

Back in 2006, Obama’s fearful mind was in overdrive. But then she asked herself: What am I actually afraid of here? It all came down to one word: change. She had no idea how their lives would look after this change. But then she reminded herself how many times she and Barack had tried something new – and thrived. From leaving their families, to changing careers, to becoming parents. Turning down a challenge just because it felt new and different just didn’t sit right with her. You won’t be surprised to learn that Obama said yes – Barack should run for President. Two years later, the Obamas became the first Black family to ever live in the White House.

So, next time you hear your own fearful mind, listen to it. Listen to all the ways it encourages you to avoid change. To stay in your comfort zone. To keep your world small.

Then ask it: Why don’t we try doing something that makes our world bigger for once?

Shine your light outward into friendships and community

Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 was a celebrity-studded event. Attendees and performers included four former Presidents and five former Vice Presidents, as well as Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Spielberg, Muhammad Ali, Beyonce, and legendary civil rights activist, Congressman John Lewis.

But the people Obama was most excited to spot in the crowd might surprise you. She was excited to see Elizabeth, a friend who had flown in from New Haven to be there. Verna, who’d known Obama since they were both in law school together. And Kelly, who’d weathered all the storms of pregnancy and parenthood side-by-side with Obama.

Michelle Obama credits her professional success and her personal happiness not just to her partner, Barack, or her family, but to the incredibly tight knit network of friends she’s cultivated and maintained over her lifetime. Whatever happens – whether there’s a family tragedy or a dress-code dilemma – Obama knows friendship, wisdom, and support are only ever a phone call away. She treasures and relies on her friends, just as they rely on her.

Maybe you can relate. Maybe, though, hearing about Obama’s strong, nourishing friendships makes you feel kind of jealous, or even sad. If you feel like you’re struggling to connect with others, or cut adrift from your community, take some comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Increasingly, your experience is becoming the norm.

In 2014, Barack Obama appointed Dr. Vivek Murthy to the role of surgeon general. Murthy kicked things off by going on a nationwide tour of the United States, talking to everyone he could about their health and wellbeing concerns. Chief among them? Loneliness. It affects people from all walks of life yet, in a society that values self-reliance, there’s a stigma to admitting you crave the friendship and company of others. In recent years, social media – where carefully curated picture-perfect updates seem designed to make you feel alone and inadequate – and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the loneliness epidemic. And yes, it is an epidemic – loneliness has long-term implications for mental health. Research has shown that someone experiencing loneliness actually finds it harder to trust and connect with others, creating a vicious cycle of sorts, where disconnection and isolation compound.

But loneliness and isolation can be overcome.

There’s a reason Obama has such a strong, connected network of friends. She works at friendship, with the same focus and energy she works at her career and her family. Friendship is that important to her. And she doesn’t find making new friends easy. Do you feel self-conscious or awkward asking someone if they’d like to hang out with you, maybe grab a coffee sometime? Obama sympathizes. She’s always found it challenging to bridge the gap between being acquaintances and being friends – even more so, now that potential new friends have to deal with her high-profile lifestyle and intimidating security detail. Obama calls this potentially-awkward moment the Ignition Point. Navigate that point successfully, and you open yourself up to new connections and relationships. If the Ignition Point feels too fraught for you, it might help to change the way you frame it. It’s easy to focus on yourself in this moment – you’re feeling vulnerable and afraid of rejection. Try focusing on the person you’d like to connect with, instead. It’s an act of kindness and curiosity to say, I’d like to know you more. It’s an affirmation to acknowledge that you see the light inside someone else. By reaching out, you’re giving them a gift. There’s nothing awkward or shameful about that.

One light kindles another. When you see the light in someone else, you help it burn brighter. And the same thing happens when you let someone see the light in you.

Don’t let darkness dim your light

In 2016, Barack Obama was the outgoing President of the United States. Campaigning for office were the Democrat candidate Hilary Clinton and the Republican candidate Donald Trump. The campaign was hotly contested. Trump, in his bid for office, often appealed to people’s fears and anxieties. He told voters that the nation was being swamped by illegal immigrants, that American cities were violent and dysfunctional, that the economy was on the brink of collapse – and that only he could fix the problem.

At a rally in support of Clinton, Obama remembers wanting to remind voters that they could choose to vote out of hope, optimism, and principle rather than out of fear and self-interest. She shared with the crowd an expression the Obama family often used around the dinner table, and one that would go on to become one of her most memorable phrases: “When they go low, we go high.” It was a reminder to keep perspective, to ignore petty attacks, to commit to higher objectives. Going high, according to Obama, means drawing a line and asking yourself – which side do I want to be on here?

The phrase resonated. But, like many simple mottos, while it’s easy to remember and repeat, it can be a lot harder to put into practice. In the years since 2016, lots of people have questioned Obama about going high. In this time, there’s been a pandemic. Russia has invaded Ukraine. In the US, elected officials sought to undermine the democratic process. Black people are disproportionately assaulted and even murdered by the police. Trans rights are still treated as though they are up for debate. As are the rights of gay people, people of color, women – the list goes on. After all these fresh outrages, and while we still carry all these old wounds, these people want to know: Are we still supposed to go high?

Obama’s answer is simple.

Yes.

It might not feel like “going high” has really worked out. But going high is a process. And it won’t always bring immediate results. Here’s how Obama herself practices going high.

She pauses before she reacts. Going high means following your best impulses. Building in a pause, even when you’re provoked, gives you time to sort through your emotions. When you’re insulted or threatened, it’s okay to feel rage, hurt, and disappointment. It’s human – it’s healthy. But remember, emotions are not plans. Rage won’t solve problems and hurt won’t right injustices. Pause to feel your feelings and then work out, clearly and calmly, how you want to respond.

Obama makes a distinction between responding and merely reacting. More and more of us, she feels, are content with reacting to issues: hitting “like” or “share” on a social media post isn’t the same as actually doing something. Being active online and being an activist are two very different things. Things that can make a difference? A vote makes a difference. Engaging with your community makes a difference. Donating your time and talents to causes you believe in makes a difference. Showing compassion and gratitude for those around you makes a difference. And with each of these actions, your light will burn brighter.

Some people will have to fight harder to go high than others. As a Black woman, Obama knows this. Going high and shining her light means exposing herself to threats, insults, and bigotry. If you’re in a similar position, here is Obama’s advice to you: keep the poison out and keep the power in. Stay focused on what you’re doing and who you’re doing it for. As first lady, whenever the media scrutiny and stereotyping grew too much to bear, Obama would rearrange her schedule to visit a school. Spending time with kids always reminds her that we’re all born free of hate and prejudice – Obama is going high for them. Who are you going high for?

Summary

The key message of this summary to The Light we Carry is that, even in overwhelmingly challenging global circumstances, each of us can be a force for connection and change. Focus on nourishing the spark inside you, kindling the light in others, and keep shining your light in spite of any darkness.

About the author

Michelle Obama served as First Lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Mrs. Obama started her career as an attorney at the Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin, where she met her future husband, Barack Obama. She later worked in the Chicago mayor’s office, at the University of Chicago, and at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Mrs. Obama also founded the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, an organization that prepares young people for careers in public service. She is the author of the #1 global bestseller Becoming and the #1 national bestseller American Grown. The Obamas currently live in Washington, D.C., and have two daughters, Malia and Sasha.

Michelle Obama | Website
Michelle Obama | Facebook @michelleobama
Michelle Obama | Twitter @MichelleObama
Michelle Obama | Instagram @michelleobama
Michelle Obama | Snap

Table of Contents

Introduction 3
Part 1
Chapter 1 The Power of Small 23
Chapter 2 Decoding Fear 51
Chapter 3 Starting Kind 77
Chapter 4 Am I Seen? 89
Part 2
Chapter 5 My Kitchen Table 121
Chapter 6 Partnering Well 151
Chapter 7 Meet My Mom 187
Part 3
Chapter 8 The Whole of Us 217
Chapter 9 The Armor We Wear 245
Chapter 10 Going High 269
Acknowledgments 301
Resources 307
Notes 309
Photograph Credits 317

Overview

#1 NEW YORK TIMES AND USA TODAY BESTSELLER • ONE OF TIME’S 100 MUST-READ BOOKS OF 2022 • In an inspiring follow-up to her critically acclaimed, #1 bestselling memoir Becoming, former First Lady Michelle Obama shares practical wisdom and powerful strategies for staying hopeful and balanced in today’s highly uncertain world.

There may be no tidy solutions or pithy answers to life’s big challenges, but Michelle Obama believes that we can all locate and lean on a set of tools to help us better navigate change and remain steady within flux. In The Light We Carry, she opens a frank and honest dialogue with readers, considering the questions many of us wrestle with: How do we build enduring and honest relationships? How can we discover strength and community inside our differences? What tools do we use to address feelings of self-doubt or helplessness? What do we do when it all starts to feel like too much?

Michelle Obama offers readers a series of fresh stories and insightful reflections on change, challenge, and power, including her belief that when we light up for others, we can illuminate the richness and potential of the world around us, discovering deeper truths and new pathways for progress. Drawing from her experiences as a mother, daughter, spouse, friend, and First Lady, she shares the habits and principles she has developed to successfully adapt to change and overcome various obstacles—the earned wisdom that helps her continue to “become.” She details her most valuable practices, like “starting kind,” “going high,” and assembling a “kitchen table” of trusted friends and mentors. With trademark humor, candor, and compassion, she also explores issues connected to race, gender, and visibility, encouraging readers to work through fear, find strength in community, and live with boldness.

“When we are able to recognize our own light, we become empowered to use it,” writes Michelle Obama. A rewarding blend of powerful stories and profound advice that will ignite conversation, The Light We Carry inspires readers to examine their own lives, identify their sources of gladness, and connect meaningfully in a turbulent world.

Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award

“A deeply personal and hugely inspirational exploration of ‘what keeps us upright in the face of uncertainty . . .’ In other words, perfect for now.”—O Quarterly

“A joy to read.”—Los Angeles Times

“Reaffirming . . . What makes the book special is that it builds on parts of Becoming, and [Michelle] Obama serves as mentor and guide.”—The Washington Post

“Obama’s road map for uncertain times resonates in ways that other self-help books do not. . . . Through her stories, experiences and thoughts, we’re finding the light with her.”—The New York Times

“[Michelle Obama’s] clear-eyed confidence is a model for anyone searching for reason, strength, and optimism in tough times.”—Lucy Feldman, Time’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2022

“Miraculously, these self-help bromides don’t come across as cloying, mainly because Obama is so disarmingly honest about her fears, failures and all-too-human flaws. . . . You can’t argue with the hard-fought wisdom of such an accomplished woman.”—The Guardian

“Though Obama makes it clear she still struggles with plenty of self-doubt and doesn’t have all the answers, she provides a pretty thorough road map to living a fuller, kinder, better life.”—USA Today

“A heartening pep talk from the former first lady.”—Kirkus Reviews

“In The Light We Carry, Obama shares ideas for quelling what roils our stomachs and ways to move forward. She’s like a big sister whispering in my ear, ‘You are enough.’”—Philadelphia Inquirer

“Encouraging, sometimes funny, always chummy . . . The Light We Carry contains a multitude of other poignant, amusing anecdotes and helpful advice for all types of readers.”—BookPage

Praise for Michelle Obama’s Becoming

“A serious work of candid reflection by a singular figure of early-twenty-first-century America . . . Becoming is refined and forthright, gracefully written and at times laugh-out-loud funny.”—Isabel Wilkerson, The New York Times Book Review

“Becoming is inspirational without trying to be. From the first words, the very warmth that permeates its author emanates from the pages. . . . Becoming manages to be a coming-of-age tale, a love story and a family saga all in one. More importantly, this book is a reminder that America is still a work-in-progress, and that hope can be an action word if we allow it to be. Becoming is a balm that America needs, from a woman America does not yet deserve.”—Angie Thomas, Time

“Deeply personal and refreshingly honest . . . She’s thoughtful, humorous, bracingly revealing, and when it’s time, she does us all the favor of showing us the human side of a man worshipped by so many. . . . It’s human and genuine and welcoming to see the layers of humanity she holds open. . . . Michelle Obama’s story can maybe inspire you to find a path for your own story.”—Shonda Rhimes, Shondaland

“A complex, accomplished life recounted with confidence and candor . . . Every page sparkles with directness and grace.”—Douglas Brinkley, The Boston Globe

Video and Podcast

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Introduction

At some point when I was a child, my father started using a cane to keep himself balanced when he walked. I don’t remember exactly when it showed up in our home on the South Side of Chicago—I was maybe four or five years old at the time—but suddenly it was there, slim and sturdy and made of a smooth dark wood. The cane was an early concession to multiple sclerosis, the disease that had given my father a severe left-legged limp. Slowly and silently and probably long before he received a formal diagnosis, MS was undermining his body, eating away at his central nervous system and weakening his legs as he went about his everyday business: working at the city’s water filtration plant, running a household with my mom, trying to raise good kids.

The cane helped my dad get himself up the stairs to our apartment or down a city block. In the evenings, he would set it against the arm of his recliner and seemingly forget about it as he watched sports on TV, or listened to jazz on the stereo, or pulled me onto his lap to ask about my day at school. I was fascinated by the cane’s curved handle, the black rubber tip at its end, the hollow clatter it made when it fell to the floor. Sometimes I’d try to use it, imitating my father’s motions as I hobbled around our living room, hoping to feel what it was like to walk in his shoes. But I was too small and the cane was too big, and so instead I would incorporate it as a stage prop in my games of pretending.

As we say it in my family, that cane symbolized nothing. It was just a tool, the same way my mother’s spatula was a tool in the kitchen, or my grandfather’s hammer got used any time he came over to fix a broken shelf or curtain rod. It was utilitarian, protected, something to lean on when needed.

What we didn’t really want to acknowledge was the fact that my father’s condition was gradually growing worse, his body quietly turning on itself. Dad knew it. Mom knew it. My older brother, Craig, and I were just kids at the time, but kids are no dummies, and so even as our father still played catch with us in the backyard and showed up at our piano recitals and Little League games, we knew it, too. We were starting to understand that Dad’s illness left us more vulnerable as a family, less protected. In an emergency, it’d be harder for him to leap into action and save us from a fire or an intruder. We were learning that life was not in our control.

Every so often, too, the cane would fail our father. He would misjudge a step, or his foot would catch a lump in the rug, and suddenly he’d stumble and fall. And in that single freeze-frame instant, with his body in midair, we would catch sight of everything we were hoping not to see—his vulnerability, our helplessness, the uncertainty and harder times ahead.

The sound of a full-grown man hitting the floor is thunderous—a thing you never forget. It shook our tiny apartment like an earthquake, sending us rushing to his aid.

“Fraser, be careful!” my mom would say, as if her words could undo what had happened. Craig and I would leverage our young bodies to help our dad back to his feet, scrambling to retrieve his cane and eyeglasses from wherever they’d flown, as if our speed in getting him upright might erase the image of his fall. As if any one of us could fix anything. These moments left me feeling worried and afraid, realizing what we stood to lose and how easily it could happen.

Usually, my father would just laugh the whole thing off, downplaying the fall, signaling that it was okay to smile or crack a joke. There seemed to be an unspoken pact between us: We needed to let these moments go. In our home, laughter was yet another well-worked tool.

Now that I’m an adult, what I understand about multiple sclerosis is this: The disease impacts millions of people worldwide. MS trips up the immune system in such a way that it starts attacking from within, mistaking friend for foe, self for other. It disrupts the central nervous system, stripping away the protective casing from neural fibers called axons, leaving their delicate strands exposed.

If MS caused my father pain, he didn’t talk about it. If the indignities of his disability dimmed his spirit, he rarely showed it. I don’t know if he ever took falls when we weren’t around—at the water-filtration plant, or walking in or out of the barbershop—though it stand to reason he did, at least occasionally. Nonetheless, years passed. My dad went to work, came home, kept smiling. Maybe this was a form of denial. Maybe it was simply the code he chose to live by. You fall, you get up, you carry on.

I realize now that my father’s disability gave me an early and important lesson about what it feels like to be different, to move through this world marked by something you can’t much control. Even if we weren’t dwelling on it, that differentness was always there. My family carried it. We worried about things that other families didn’t seem to worry about. Going out, we quietly sized up the obstacles, calculating the energy it would take for my father to cross a parking lot or navigate his way through the bleachers at Craig’s basketball games. We measured distance and elevation differently. We viewed sets of stairs, icy sidewalks, and high curbs differently. We assessed parks and museums for how many benches they had, places where a tired body could rest. Everywhere we went, we weighed the risks and looked for small efficiencies for my dad. We counted every step.

And when one tool stopped working for him, its utility dwarfed by the strength of his disease, we’d go out and find another—the cane replaced by a pair of forearm crutches, the crutches replaced eventually by a motorized cart and a specially equipped van that was packed with levers and hydraulics to help make up for what his body could no longer do.

Did my father love any of these things, or think they solved all his problems? Not at all. But did he need them? Yes, absolutely. That’s what tools are for. They help keep us upright and balanced, better able to coexist with uncertainty. They help us deal with flux, to manage when life feels out of control. And they help us continue onward, even while in discomfort, even as we live with our strands exposed.

I have been thinking a lot about these things—about what we carry, what keeps us upright in the face of uncertainty, and how we locate and lean on our tools, especially during times of chaos. I’ve been thinking, too, about what it means to be different. I’m struck by how so many of us wrestle with feeling different, and by how central our perceptions of differentness continue to be in our broader conversation about what sort of world we want to live in, who we trust, who we elevate, and who we leave behind.

These are complicated questions, of course, with complicated answers. And “being different” can be defined in many ways. But it’s worth saying on behalf of those who feel it: There’s nothing easy about finding your way through a world loaded with obstacles that others can’t or don’t see. When you are different, you can feel as if you’re operating with a different map, a different set of navigational challenges, than those around you. Sometimes, you feel like you have no map at all. Your differentness will often precede you into a room; people see it before they see you. Which leave you with the task of overcoming. And overcoming is, almost by definition, draining.

As a result—as a matter of survival, really—you learn, as my family did, to be watchful. You figure out how to guard your energy, to count every step. And at the heart of this lies a head-spinning paradox: Being different conditions you toward cautiousness, even as it demands that you be bold.