This week was the third time in the last decade that I’ve stepped into the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. And just like the first two times, I felt as if I was stepping onto holy ground. Something a tad “not of this world.” Even with all the tourists milling about and children squealing and the city sounds in the distance, it somehow seems quieter, more still, once you go down the steps and are in the midst of it.
As I’d done twice before, I started in a slow walk around, trying to take in the depth of it all. I tried to notice each state, especially Kentucky and Georgia, the two I claim most. I stopped and read the inscriptions and read again the various places battles of that war took place.
And then, lost in thought, I stumbled on something that has not left me these last few days. (See photo to the left.)
Since I’ve last been there I’ve read Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation and learned more about the service of one of my grandfathers, who was a POW in Germany in the last several months of the war. These two things, as well as simply growing older and knowing more about human tragedy have shifted my thinking such that I truly believe we owe the women and men of that war our lives.
And maybe that’s why I stopped. Stood in front of these words for a while, let them sink into my being.
But I think, even more, these words struck me because I fear, these days, we have let down the “heroic men and valiant women.” Let them down horribly. Perhaps–though I’m desperately hoping not–irreparably.
Because I cannot imagine they gave their lives, their futures, their entire beings, so that we could become a nation that mocks, name calls, finger points and judges one another, as if being the United States of America has become some weird poker game in which the ones with the most of the right kind of chips wins.
(Sidenote: Please do not assume a certain political viewpoint is being espoused here…that defeats the point entirely…we’re all in this mess…together….)
I cannot imagine they gave their lives so that we could become politically deadlocked. Exclusive of anyone not like us. Unable to rise above our own fears and baggage long enough to walk one measly mile in the shoes of a fellow American whose life experience is vastly different than hours.
I cannot imagine they gave their lives for intolerance. For hate. For mistrust. I cannot believe they gave their lives so that we could constantly be at each other’s throats.
And I swear to you all, as I did stood there, hopelessness flooded my soul, and I could not, for the life of me, imagine something good coming out of where we currently find ourselves as a nation. And so I just walked away. Quietly, shaking my head, and feeling really heavy of spirit. It was all I could do to muster the faux cheerfulness needed to convince my very tired and hot Curly Girl that it was worth the extra steps down the length of the reflecting pool to see someone important to her: Abraham Lincoln (her school’s namesake and hero).
She and I both rallied, even if slowly, and off we went.
She walked purposefully, with the measured steps of someone who is really exhausted but also determined to see it through. And as she and I both approached the steps that lead up to Mr. Lincoln, we took a deep breath, and I let her walk ahead of me a bit, since this was her first time to experience it.
Because I walked behind her, I got to see this (Again, see photo to the left.) I got to see my daughter as she took in the sight of Abraham Lincoln as we’ve enshrined him in this country. And as she stood there, head cocked to one side, not saying a word, but I’m sure taking it all in the way she always does, I remembered reading these words, ones I’ve written about before, of the one she’d come to see:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
“We are not enemies…We must not be enemies…by the better angels of our nature.”
Holy hell, y’all. Across the centuries his words rang.
If anyone would know the heartache of a nation ripped apart by difference, it’d be Abe. And dear merciful Lord how we need those better angels to prevail right now. It was as if the words had been written for these very days. And I wondered at the beauty of that and also the awfulness of it.
And I thought, as I watched my daughter, looking so tiny at the feet of such a majestic figure, what a mighty thing it is to realize how very human we are, such that we once again find ourselves divided as a nation. And also what a lovely thing it is to realize how very human we are, such that we are capable of rising to the occasion, of finding a way forward, of healing, of moving into new ways of being as a nation–just as we’ve done before.
It’s bad, y’all. I know. But we are not without hope. We have guides. Giants who have gone before and who, if we’ll let them, can continue to show us the way. And we have the ones coming behind us, guides in their own right, who know more about what it means to love with complete abandon and lack of condition than we ever did. In their tiny hearts, their just-beginning journeys, are perhaps our best hope of all.
It’s hard, y’all. I know. For a million reasons and in a million ways. But dear God it’s also worth it. We’re better than what we’ve been. And capable of so much more.
And so, dear better angels…rise within us. Insist upon your presence. Demand our attention. Be in our words, our actions, our choices. Stay with us. Even when we push you away because we want our own way. Prevail upon us.