Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Opinion

Lincoln’s lesson of reconciliation

He had lost a son many years before, the boy barely more than a toddler when he died. Now another son was dead and grief sat on him like the shawl that draped his shoulders as he rattled around the big, cold house. His wife was emotionally troubled and spent money they did not have. His subordinates were insubordinate, convinced he was out of his depth and that they could do a better job. And his country had split along a ragged seam of geography and race, boys from Maine and Vermont fighting it out against boys from Georgia and Tennessee, their bodies left broken, bloated, bloody and fly-swarmed, dead by the profligate thousands.

It was against that backdrop that Abraham Lincoln decided to say thank you.

He issued a proclamation making the fourth Thursday in November a day of national gratitude. Almost 150 years later, it still is.

This year, the commemoration follows a bitter election, with secession being bruited about like some distasteful joke, and the atmosphere so acrimonious it calls to mind the years before the Civil War itself. It also comes as we are rediscovering our 16th president yet again, this time through Lincoln, a new film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

The movie has drawn rave reviews — and deservedly so. It frees Abraham Lincoln from the sarcophagus of marble in which great men are inevitably encased. Day-Lewis' Lincoln steps down from the memorial to rail, scheme, despair, fret and, when all else fails, tell a folksy story as he attempts to shove the 13th Amendment — the one that ended slavery — through a balky Congress.

Amid all the renewed interest in Lincoln, one hopes we don't miss the lessons inherent in the simple fact that a man of such profound grief made a statement of such profound gratitude. There is contradiction there — and the resolution thereof. Contradiction was the story of Lincoln's presidency, his epic struggle to put North and South back together. It was also the story of his life.

He was, after all, a religiously ambivalent man who believed himself a tool in the hands of God, an unschooled man who was often the smartest one in the room, a melancholy man who found salvation in humor, a white supremacist who abhorred African slavery. So perhaps we ought not be surprised that, with every good reason to shake an angry fist at heaven, he asked his nation to give heaven thanks instead.

It is an example worth remembering in a nation fiercely divided by its own contradictions of ideology, demography, geography, sexual orientation, religion and race. It is worth remembering not simply because giving thanks is always a good idea, but also because this specific example reminds us that there is in us a need — and an ability — to reconcile disparate pieces, draw them together, as he did, into a greater whole.

We tend to think of people — and nations — as being all of a piece, either this thing or that. But people and nations are complex things. They are made of contradiction, and maybe that's a necessary thing, maybe that tension is the seed of human achievement. It takes a spark to make a fire. Fires warm us. And yes, fires burn things down.

There is defiance — you might call it faith — to Lincoln's decision to speak gratitude when he did. But he navigated by the pole star of compassion large enough to encompass the whole of America's contradictions. "With malice toward none," he said. "With charity for all ..." A month later, he would die with an assassin's bullet in his brain.

We live in a time of louder, if not more substantive contradiction, an angry, polarized, ominous time, sparks building fires that may yet warm — or destroy. But that is the singular challenge of our existence, isn't it? To resolve the contradictions into grace and a spirit of thanksgiving, defiant.

© 2012 Miami Herald

Comments
Editorial: Trump should stop taking children away from parents at the border

Editorial: Trump should stop taking children away from parents at the border

Innocent children should not be used as political pawns. That is exactly what the Trump administration is doing by cruelly prying young children away from their parents as these desperate families cross the Mexican border in search of a safer, better...
Updated: 11 hours ago

Editorial: ATF should get tougher on gun dealers who violate the law

Gun dealers who break the law by turning a blind eye to federal licensing rules are as dangerous to society as people who have no right to a possess a firearm in the first place. Yet a recent report shows that the federal agency responsible for polic...
Published: 06/17/18
Updated: 06/18/18
Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

The new grass-roots effort to put a transportation package before Hillsborough County voters in November faces a tough slog. Voters rejected a similar effort in 2010, and another in 2016 by elected officials never made it from the gate. But the lates...
Published: 06/15/18
Editorial: 40 years later, honoring remarkable legacy of Nelson Poynter

Editorial: 40 years later, honoring remarkable legacy of Nelson Poynter

Forty years ago today, Nelson Poynter died. He was the last individual to own this newspaper, and to keep the Times connected to this community, he did something remarkable. He gave it away.In his last years, Mr. Poynter recognized that sooner or lat...
Published: 06/15/18

There was no FBI anti-Trump conspiracy

The Justice Department released Thursday the highly anticipated report on the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe and other sensitive issues in the 2016 election. It is not the report President Donald Trump wanted. But there is enough i...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

Voter purge may be legal, but it’s also suppression

The Supreme Court’s ruling last Monday to allow Ohio’s purging of its voter rolls is difficult to dispute legally. While federal law prohibits removing citizens from voter rolls simply because they haven’t voted, Ohio’s purge is slightly different. T...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

Editorial: Free rides will serve as a test of whether the streetcar is serious transportation

Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to ride for free?This fall, the TECO Streetcar Line eliminates its $2.50-a-ride-fare, providing the best opportunity yet to see whether the system’s vintage streetcar replicas can serve as a legitimate transportation a...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

AT&T and the case for digital innovation

A good way to guarantee you’ll be wrong about something is to predict the future of technology. As in, "One day, we’ll all …" Experts can hazard guesses about artificial intelligence, driverless cars or the death of cable television, but technologica...
Published: 06/14/18
Editorial: State, nonprofits share obligation to help Hillsborough’s foster kids

Editorial: State, nonprofits share obligation to help Hillsborough’s foster kids

The Florida Department of Children and Families has correctly set a quick deadline for Hillsborough County’s main child welfare provider to correct its foster care program. For too long the same story has played out, where troubled teens who need fos...
Published: 06/14/18
Editorial: Educate voters on Amendment 4 and restoring felons’ rights

Editorial: Educate voters on Amendment 4 and restoring felons’ rights

This fall voters will have 13 constitutional amendments to wade through on the ballot, but Amendment 4 should get special focus. It represents a rare opportunity to rectify a grievous provision in the Florida Constitution, which permanently revokes t...
Published: 06/13/18
Updated: 06/14/18