Of all the questions I get asked, there’s one that comes up more often and more predictably than any other. Nearly every time I talk to an interviewer or sit down with a new group of people, I can basically count on someone raising it, while others lean in to listen.
What does it really mean to go high?
It seems possible that I might spend years answering this question. So let me try here.
I first publicly uttered the words “When they go low, we go high” while speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Hillary Clinton was running for president, as was Donald Trump. My job was to rally Democratic voters, reminding everyone to stay involved and do the work it would take to get their candidate elected, including voting on Election Day. As I often do, I talked about how the issues of the day mattered to me as a parent to my two daughters, how the choices Barack and I made were always guided by the principles we wanted our kids to recognize as valuable.
Truthfully, I had no idea that the phrase “we go high” would attach itself to me for years to come, becoming almost synonymous with my name. All I was doing, really, was sharing a convenient bit of shorthand Barack and I used to remind ourselves to hang on to our integrity when we saw others losing theirs. It was a simplification of our ideals: Tell the truth, do your best by others, keep perspective, stay tough.
Privately, Barack and I have committed and recommitted to the idea of going high many times, especially as we have gone through hard-hitting campaigns and political battles, trying to navigate life in the public eye. We invoke it any time we feel like we are being tested, as a reminder to steady ourselves when confronted by a moral challenge. Going high is like drawing a line in the sand, a boundary we can make visible and then consider. Which side of this do I want to be on? It’s a reminder to pause and be thoughtful.
And yet the problem with any simple motto, I suppose, is that it can be easier to remember and repeat than to put into active daily practice.
These days, when people ask me to explain what it means to go high, I sometimes sense a slightly less polite question riding on its back side, tinged by a natural skepticism, a feeling brewed by weariness and arriving when our efforts seem fruitless and our tests don’t end: But wait, have you seen the world lately? How much worse can things get? Where is the energy to fight?
After George Floyd died with a police officer’s knee on his neck on a Minneapolis street corner in May 2020, people wrote me, asking whether going high was really the correct response. After the Capitol building was marauded, after Republican officials continued to support false and undermining claims about our elections, they wondered something similar. The provocations are endless. We’ve seen more than a million Americans die in a pandemic that highlights every disparity in our culture. We’ve seen Russian troops slaughtering civilians in Ukraine. The Taliban has banned girls going to school in Afghanistan. In the United States, our own leaders have moved to criminalize abortion while communities are routinely devastated by gun violence and hate crimes. Trans rights, gay rights, voting rights, women’s rights—all remain under attack. Any time there’s another injustice, another round of brutality, another incident of failed leadership, corruption, or violation of rights, I get letters and emails that pose some form of this same question.
Are we still supposed to be going high?
My answer is yes. We need to keep trying to go high. Operating with integrity matters. It will matter forever. It is a tool.
At the same time, though, I want to be clear: Going high is something you do rather than merely feel. It’s not some call to be complacent and wait around for change, or to sit on the sidelines as others struggle. It is not about accepting the conditions of oppression or letting cruelty and power go unchallenged. The notion of going high shouldn’t raise any questions about whether we are obligated to fight for more fairness, decency, and justice in this world; rather, it’s about how we fight, how we go about trying to solve the problems we encounter, and how we sustain ourselves long enough to be effective rather than burn out. There are some who see this as an unfair and ineffective compromise, an extension of respectability politics, in which we conform to rather than challenge the rules in order to get by. Why, people rightly wonder, do we need to try to be so reasonable all the time?
I can see how some think that reason leaves no room for rage. I understand the perception that going high means that you somehow remove yourself and remain unbothered by all that might otherwise gall and provoke you.
But it’s not that at all.
When I first said those words on the convention stage in Philadelphia in 2016, I was neither removed nor unbothered. In fact, I was pretty agitated. At that point, I had been thoroughly provoked by the bile coming out of the mouths of Republican officials on a regular basis. I was tired after nearly eight years of seeing my husband’s work undermined and his character denigrated, including through bigoted attempts to call his citizenship into question. And I was angry that the chief instigator of that bigotry was now out campaigning to be president.
But where was my actual power? I knew it didn’t reside in my hurt and rage, at least as they existed in raw forms. My power lay in whatever I could manage to do with that hurt and rage, where I could take it. It hinged on whether or not I could elevate those feelings into something that would become harder for others to write off, which was a clear message, a call to action, and a result I was willing to work for.
That’s what going high is for me. It’s about taking an abstract and usually upsetting feeling and working to convert it into some sort of actionable plan, to move through the raw stuff and in the direction of a larger solution.
I want to be clear that this is a process, and not always a quick one. It can take time and patience. It’s okay to sit and stew for a while, to live inside the agitation caused by injustice or fear or grief, or to express your pain. It’s okay to grant yourself the space you need to recover or heal. For me, going high usually involves taking a pause before I react. It is a form of self-control, a line laid between our best and worst impulses. Going high is about resisting the temptation to participate in shallow fury and corrosive contempt and instead figuring out how to respond with a clear voice to whatever is shallow and corrosive around you. It’s what happens when you take a reaction and mature it into a response.
Because here’s the thing: Emotions are not plans. They don’t solve problems or right any wrongs. You can feel them—you will feel them, inevitably—but be careful about letting them guide you. Rage can be a dirty windshield. Hurt is like a broken steering wheel. Disappointment will only ride, sulking and unhelpful, in the back seat. If you don’t do something constructive with them, they’ll take you straight into a ditch.
My power has always hinged on my ability to keep myself out of the ditch.
Adapted from the book The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times by Michelle Obama. Copyright © 2022 by Michelle Obama. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
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