Op-ed: ‘Never let the challenges of life make you bitter’

No one could have imagined that 2020 would look like this. Our economy was booming, unemployment numbers were down, and we were looking forward to the warmer months here in South Carolina. Then came one calamity after another, and the world seemingly came to a halt.

In a year already filled with so much loss, the passing of my good friend John Lewis is yet another devastating blow to our nation.

I first remember meeting him in 2011. The Civil Rights icon himself brought me, just a newly-elected congressman at the time, into his office to view pictures of his journey through the challenges of our nation’s past. And then the man who suffered through the Jim Crow laws of the South, through a brutal beating during the march from Selma to Montgomery, and through many more trials over the past 60 years said to me: “Never let the challenges of life make you bitter.”

That is how I aspire to live, with optimism and unwavering hope for a better tomorrow. Those words serve as a reminder that, even in the midst of hardship — whether it be the pandemic, social injustices, or the fight for police reform — our situations do not have to dictate our outlook on the world.

As we approach the fall of 2020, the face of our nation looks different. And as we all know, it is easy to let the daily news and COVID-19 statistics overwhelm and demoralize us.

But even though our battle with the virus is not yet over, we can each do our part in remaining optimistic as we fight to stop the spread. It would be all too easy to lose hope and become resentful of our situation, social distancing from close friends, or wearing masks in the South Carolina summer heat. But the sooner we accept and embrace these steps, the sooner we will get back to school openings, cookouts with friends, and college football games.

Likewise, although my JUSTICE Act has not yet passed the Senate, I am optimistic that substantive change is just around the corner. Five years ago, after the shooting of Walter Scott in my hometown of North Charleston, I introduced police reform legislation in the Senate. At the time, my pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears. But then, 8 minutes and 46 seconds changed everything. Now, people of all colors and political leanings are calling for reform. That’s why I am hopeful, because I know that Americans who stand united can accomplish anything.

The struggles we face today — from police reform to COVID-19 — are not Republican, Democrat, black, or white issues, but American issues, and we will overcome them by fighting together. We are different, but we succeed when we use our differences to pull one another up.

As a child growing up in a single-parent household mired in poverty, I remember feeling disenfranchised, as if success was out of reach. By my freshman year of high school, I was failing world geography, Spanish, English, and (ironically) civics. I wasn’t sure I could finish high school, much less accomplish something like owning a business or becoming a United States Senator. But a man named John Moniz, the owner of a local Chick-fil-A franchise, noticed me struggling and quickly became both my mentor and my friend. He saw something in me and spent time teaching me conservative business principles. “Having a job is good,” he said, “but creating jobs is even better.” Through his words of advice and his own actions, he taught me the importance of providing opportunity for everyone in the community and helping each other reach success. The principles that he instilled in me would change my life forever.

You see, I know that Americans have what it takes to stand together and to help one another succeed because that is my story — because I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for a man who saw past the differences in our race and socioeconomic status to help me find the path toward success.

As I look at our American family and accomplishments, from the courageous life of John Lewis to the actions of unsung heroes like my own mentor, I know that we will make it through. This year has knocked us down, but we are strong and resilient. Let’s hold on to hope as we help one another back up.