April 24 …
Here I am, at Gettysburg PA, with my good buddy Abe. Seriously, I cannot hear or speak or read the name without getting a lump in my throat. I suppose our favorite heroes are our childhood heroes, and this guy is no exception. From the moment I was old enough to pick up small objects such as pennies and put them into my mouth, I was literally feasting on Lincoln.
He freed the slaves, split rails, and wore a cool hat. What more could a kid want? This was part of the Abe that we were presented with as a role model, Role Model Lincoln, the poor and humble kid who made good, the funny guy who was a natural at telling jokes but who knew when to get serious, who buckled down and got ahead, who overcame every bad break and persevered, and in the process saved the nation.
Then, at an age where I was much too young to appreciate adult emotions, I learned how vulnerable he was, how he agonized, literally went to pieces, over the world-shaking decisions that no man or woman should ever have to agonize over. This somehow made him human to me, someone with whom I could identify.
Washington? Too aloof and Olympian. Jefferson? Perhaps if you are a New York intellectual. Lincoln? This was a guy who cried, shed real tears. Not just any tears. Christ tears, the type of tears certain beings emit when contemplating the sheer weight of human suffering and folly. So he wasn’t just human, in my estimation, he was a saint.
But not the sort of saint with special powers who worked miracles. His special powers were far different. Contemplate human suffering long enough and something in your psyche shifts. You either cave into despair or become enlightened. In most cases, it’s both. Despair first, then, maybe, enlightenment.
It was as if Lincoln had an all-knowing third eye, access to a higher wisdom. But this only had the effect of adding another order of magnitude to his suffering.
“He looks so sad.” Seven or eight years ago, I paid a visit to the Lincoln Memorial. It was night, and from the outside the floodlights on the white marble imbued the building with a shrine-like essence. Inside, inscribed on the walls, were some of the finest words ever uttered in the English tongue. I looked up. One of his hands was open, as if extending a welcome. The other was clenched in a fist, as if grappling with forces beyond human limits. And then the face …
“He looks so sad.” From the mouth of a school girl right behind me.
Just to make matters complicated, there was Lincoln’s practical side. A lot has been written of his failures, but we tend to forget he had a very successful legal career and lived in the right part of town. When the right moment came along, he was wily enough to get onto the national stage and get himself elected President. Then he managed to forge the type of coalitions that allowed him to lead a deeply divided nation through its worst crisis.
If he were a mere saint, he might have sealed himself off in a metaphorical cave somewhere and been the role model for a few Christian mystics, nothing more. Or maybe he would have authored a short book that the hippies of the sixties would have discovered, then completely forgotten about.
A poor boy going from log cabin to White House is one thing. But a saint? A transcendent being the product of his own deep humanity? One who embraced his fellow humans rather than turned his back on them, one who recruited his practical side in the service of his saintly side. One who engaged in a mission that to this day defines us as humans, to right a vast wrong.
This was the Lincoln that stayed with me through adulthood and into old age. For his efforts, he paid in full measure. Now he belonged to the ages. Lincoln, my Lincoln …