In 1861, on the brink of the Civil War, as Abraham Lincoln left Springfield for his first term as president, he made a speech from the train car about his “grave duty” and “the principle or ideal that has kept this Union so long together.” With his characteristic eloquence and elegance, Lincoln said;
Perhaps we have come to the dreadful day of awakening, and the dream is ended. If so, I am afraid it must be ended forever. I cannot believe that ever again will men have the opportunity we have had. Perhaps we should… concede that our ideals of liberty and equality are decadent and doomed. I have heard of an eastern monarch who once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence which would be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him with the words, “And this too shall pass away.”
Had Lincoln’s words ended just where I ended them above, this speech might be remembered as defeatist and dark—clear evidence of his clinical depression—but Lincoln goes on to say that, as comforting as it might be to say “This too shall pass away,” it is no way to live. He exhorts the crowd to develop “the natural world that is about us and the intellectual and moral world that is within us” and believe we can make ourselves better. He wanted to fight, and his fight brought us here.
I’ve been living in the “this too shall pass” mode, wondering how I might hunker down to survive all the mishaps that seem to gather around me. I’d like time not to pass but to pass over. Sometimes, I don’t have the courage or will to do what Lincoln asks—to live—and simply want to get to the end of what I’m doing and move on. Completion could easily become the standard for my life.
I’ve heard the mood in the United States has dropped 14%. Please don’t ask me how they measured this statistic or what it means, but I believe something is different with us right now. We are in a deep hole everyone senses, but rather than take up the hard work of climbing out, people want to bicker over what might be done or, worse, do nothing strategically, hoping to embarrass those trying to effect change.
Where has the gumption of Lincoln gone? I can imagine what might happen if Obama made a statement like Lincoln’s. Though not in so many words, he’d be accused of defeatism, of the vague anti-Americanism his opponents try to pin on him. They don’t like his calling broken what they think can’t be fixed.
I hear the call of lethargy too, frustrated by all the acrimonious disputes, ready to give up. Even though I know more than minor adjustments are needed to right this ship, I sometimes feel willing to ride it as it circles the drain.
But my best self prefers change. Why aren’t we rolling up our sleeves? The politics of obstruction will have us fiddling in the inferno. The politics of initiative at least offers hope. We need critical self-examination, not vapid patriotism, pie-in-the-sky nostalgia, national self-congratulation, or ledger rattling.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake (where I found Lincoln’s speech), he has Kilgore Trout welcome back free will with the words “You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.”
We seem far from well, but we can’t get there without first acknowledging we’re sick and trying to do something about it. Anything. All of us. Together.