Friday Reflection | September 25, 2020
Rest in Peace, Justice Ginsburg
In lieu of our regular Friday Reflection financial commentary, we are publishing a personal reflection from our founding partner, Kate Campbell King, on the life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the experience of understanding loss, and how we carry her legacy with us.
“To be born into a world that does not see you, that does not believe in your potential, that does not give you a path for opportunity, or a clear path for education, and despite this to be able to see beyond the world you are in to imagine that something can be different, that is the job of a prophet. And it is the rare prophet who not only imagines a new world, but also makes that new world a reality in her lifetime. This was the brilliance and vision of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”1
Rabbi Lauren Holtzberg of Ginsburg’s synagogue Congregation Adas Israel in Washington DC, following a reading of prayers from the Torah, September 23, 2020.
It has been a week of grief following a tremendous loss. The loss of a brilliant jurist, a role model, and an ally for change. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an inspiration; a quiet yet powerful force. Arriving in 1993, she was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Known as a moderate judge and a consensus builder, on the Court she proved to be thoughtful, deliberate, fair, and effective. When she was unable to build a majority, she authored thought-provoking dissents with impacts of their own, inviting Congress to create or improve policy as a more durable form of social consensus,2 and laying down foundational resources that might be picked up by others down the road.3
Beyond the court, Justice Ginsburg received many accolades. In 2019, she received the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture, an award given to “thinkers whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world.” They noted Ginsburg as “a lifelong trailblazer for human rights and gender equality.” With grace and dignity, she has helped many different people and communities lift up their voices.
Personally, this loss has been profound. When someone close to us dies, someone admired and integrated into the fabric of our lives, we grieve. It is no different for me with Justice Ginsburg, “Notorious RBG,” even though I didn’t know her personally. In grief, we struggle to reorder our expectations, our sense of orientation to a world that will go on without that person in it. In my grief, I am filled with a deep sense of loss, and sadness – but also of hope, and reassurance. To reflect on this combination of emotions, I think back to the first time I experienced a significant loss – of an older, accomplished woman that I looked up to
In the late spring of 1985, the mother of a close friend was diagnosed with advanced and inoperable cancer. Betsy went directly into hospice, moving unexpectedly away from her many roles working, launching two of four kids as a single mother, and running her household with an open door for neighborhood kids.
I had the good fortune to be working part time at that moment. I was just 23, on summer break from graduate school classes, and I went with my friend to visit his mother in hospice every day. In the beginning, she would talk of the things that needed to be handled, and forbid any whining about her situation. She banished her best friend from hospice for going hysterical early on, teaching us all as she always had about getting on with what was most important to accomplish, and not making an unnecessary fuss.
Eventually, the more logistical topics dwindled away. She began to talk of her childhood, in a somewhat dreamy fashion as her lack of nutrition dwindled her flesh. She delighted in simple rubbing of lotion on her back, ribs protruding, letting go of worldly cares. She declared her satisfaction with her life, shared her gratitude with us daily, and passed away at the age of 51.
Lacking any religious or other resource to make sense of her disappearance from the world, I struggled to comprehend the meaning of her life, how to handle her absence, and how to move beyond my deep grief. Through that, I eventually came to realize that her life was never just an individual life, and that every person that interacted with her had come away with a part of her. Finally knowing that, I felt relief, and joy. Every memory of her, and everything I had learned from her was all integrated inside me. I would carry pieces of her forward with me, just as would every other person who had cared for her.
As I’ve gotten older, more and more people I know have passed on. I often hear said that people find out things they never knew about an old friend or family member at their memorial service. In part, this is easily understood, because of course, every person had experiences you weren’t present for. I think it is also related to the particular way we have integrated that person into our own memories, and further, into our own selves. They live on inside us. Attending their memorial might bring new stories that we can add to the legacy we already have, but their legacy for us is already complete.
This is how I come to my sense of the value of a life, even for those of us still here and active. Every one of us contains a nearly infinite number of strands, strands that weave in the memories, beliefs, and actions of every person we ever knew. Like wool fibers being spun into yarn, each strand ends in contact with others, creating a strong bond. There is continuity in the yarn, even as its breadth and color may shift. Our loved ones are woven into us, and we can act on the foundation of their lives, their actions, their yearnings, their energy – they are a part of us.
A Cornerstone to Build Consensus
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a master weaver. Rather than literal thread, she wove perspectives, morality, and constitutional law together to create a fabric of consensus, progress, and justice.
Today, she lies in state at the Capitol. I teared up when I watched her long-time personal trainer arrive to pay respects, and drop to the marble floor to do push-ups in her honor. She pushed herself to be strong physically, even as she pushed herself as an advocate for a national consensus on a kaleidoscope of essential issues. She reached beyond the dangerous fictions of partisanship in her friendship with fellow justice, Antonin Scalia. She acknowledged her mistakes when her views evolved, recognizing the nuance and complexity of creating meaning as a member of a diverse community.
Each of us has the opportunity to build consensus every day. It may be personal, in an effort to build consensus with a spouse about parenting or a financial decision. It may be work within a project team or a group of friends. Consensus is not about forcing harmony or a joint perspective, but rather about acknowledging the variety of experiences that lead to different convictions, and then searching for some basis of common ground that can nurture our connection. Consensus is built, communally.
Like an extensively published author who dies with piles of unfinished but beloved manuscripts, RBG has left us building blocks to carry on with our own consensus building. We are all recipients of her legacy, and we can each pick up the fibers of her work on behalf of our community and her love for justice to entwine with our own.
A Legacy of Compassion
I grieve for the loss of RBG. I am so sad that she is gone, that we’ve lost such a good-humored, dedicated, hard-working advocate for others. I’m distressed to watch the scrambling to replace her on the court. At the same time, I feel the coming of rediscovery and renewal. I know I have a foundation to build on.
I think of her working out with her trainer, I think of her writing opinions in which she likely crafted every word, I think of the times she accidentally worked all night at her office. She was captivated by her own interests, and she was captivated by using her skills in the service of a better world. Those are qualities of energy and joy that are a legacy to me, qualities of compassion and of community building that I can carry out in my own life, in my own work, in my own coalitions.
Rest in peace, our beloved – and notorious – RBG.
1 Rabbi Lauren Holtzberg of Ginburg’s synagogue Congregation Adas Israel in Washington DC, following a reading of prayers from the Torah, September 23, 2020.
2 See the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
3 See her dissent in Shelby County v Holder, 2013. That decision struck down a subsection of the Voting Rights Act that has led to the disproportionate closing of polling places in predominantly African-American counties. This was the decision that led NYU Law School student Shana Knizhnik to coin her nickname for Bader Ginsburg, “Notorious RBG.”
4 Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, 2018, Convergent Books. It is readable, generous, loving and serious, and I highly recommend it.
About Kate Campbell King, CFP®
Kate Campbell King is the Founding Partner and Chief Investment Officer at North Berkeley Wealth Management.
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