The 3 Lessons Maya Angelou Taught Us About Coping


When poet, memoirist, screenwriter, film director, jazz singer, dancer, professor, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou died last week at the age of 86, I reflected on two thoughts. The first was, Is there anything this woman couldn’t do?

And the second thing I realized, as social and traditional media overflowed with tributes and expressions of gratitude for her life and work, was this: Maya Angelou helped people feel like they were possible of living great, meaningful lives.

She became, for so many, a symbol of resilience — the capacity to persist in the face of hardship and adversity — and beyond that a symbol of boundless creativity. She didn’t just survive the significant trauma of her early life; she made something magnificent of that life.

Her many works of art and scholarship are part of her widely recognized greatness, but I think the “magnificent” part is related to my second thought: creating meaningful lives. Her creativity wasn’t about how much better she was than everyone else; it was inclusive. It was grounded in a belief that we ought to help each other sing if we have a song — and that everyone has a song.

In my work helping people develop the skills they need to become more resilient to the stressors and pressures of their lives, be they large or small, I have come to know, beyond a doubt, that resilience, creativity, and generosity are key qualities in coping with stress and crafting a meaningful life. These three quotes speak to Dr. Angelou’s deep understanding of these qualities.

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

Dr. Angelou’s childhood was unpredictable — many moves and many homes — and included a period of devastating violence that left her mute for almost five years. Even after she recovered, her life remained tumultuous, both in her personal choices (working as the first black streetcar conductor at age 16) and the the world around her, as when the assassinations of her friends and colleagues Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.,  devastated her. And yet, Angelou persisted; as she wrote in what is perhaps her most famous poem, “Still I Rise.”  These events shaped her but they didn’t define or stop her. Read more on the essence of resilience.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”  

Resilience doesn’t have to stop at making it through the day-to-day grind with a little less trouble. Once you free up mental and physical energy, the question is this: What wonderful thing are you going to do with it?

Angelou was drawn to the arts in almost any form — classical music, fine art, drama, dance, poetry. That was her wonderful thing. But thriving isn’t exclusive to painting or poetry, of course. It’s whatever you are driven to be and do. What Angelou modeled was a complete commitment to the expression of her wonderfulness. She showed what it looked like to thrive on a grand scale.

“You can see in others what they don’t see in themselves and what the world doesn’t see in them. We all have that possibility, that potential and that promise of seeing beyond the seeming.”

Angelou wrote for her own creative satisfaction, but she was driven by the desire to encourage and inspire people beyond their limitations, whether they were self-imposed, determined by society, or handed down through history. The point of endeavor was, as she wrote, “to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” She sought to be that rainbow for anyone who could read or hear her work.

As Andrew Shatte, Ph.D., one of meQuilibrium’s co-founders, has discovered in his research, those who feel connected to something larger than themselves, their family, or immediate community are operating at the highest level of achievement. And that higher, generous purpose gives you the power both to withstand anything and to do the hard, worthy work of living a meaningful life.

One last quote from Maya Angelou captures these three qualities of resilience, creativity, and generosity, and a zest for life that kept her young, and will keep you young too:

“The most important thing I can tell you about aging is this: If you really feel that you want to have an off-the-shoulder blouse and some big beads and thong sandals and a dirndl skirt and a magnolia in your hair, do it. Even if you’re wrinkled.”