We woke to a briskly chilly January morning, kids awakening one at a time and trailing downstairs with bleary eyes. We enjoyed a slow morning with no where in particular to go, with books out and toys and staggered breakfast-cereal eatings. After breakfast I tuned in to the inauguration, thinking it would be a good experience for my kids.
Seeing the capitol all decked out, the brassy bands blowing in the chill air, the smiles, the dignitaries– was a moving sight. I was feeling some heightened emotions as I thought about all of this occurring on Martin Luther King Day this year.
I grew up post-civil rights era, in a state with very little diversity. I never personally saw prejudice and rascism– I was taught it was a brutally wrong sin of the fathers for which I vicariously felt deep remorse. I also saw it as something to be read about in a history book, something of a bygone era for which enlightened contemporaries bore no burden. I consumed materials about slavery, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement with a burning desire to go back and right the wrongs and inequalities I read about, with deep compassion for those who suffered through it and righteous indignation toward those who perpetuated the evil dogma of slavery and its accompanying ills.
I thought rascism was dead. Then, in my twenties, I served as a missionary in a different state for a year and a half and had my eyes opened to prejudices and class divides that still exist. To poverty and inequality that made me hurt. To an awakening that the battle Martin Luther fought is still being waged. To the ugliness and hate that still exists.
Last year was a year of highs and lows for me in two areas. As a Mormon, I experienced what I felt was an honest desire to understand my complex faith. This was hard, though, too, as it also exposed prejudices and misunderstandings about my religion that were much deeper and broader than I had realized (and that darn musical, hmm, I try not to let it bother me, try to laugh it off, but it still feels sort of horrifically awful sometimes too). I also participated in the political process more than I had in the past, with some reluctance (um, literally, as I was one of two available people). This too brought highs and lows that I wasn’t expecting. Being a delegate was a wonderful experience– I got to feel like John Adams for a day and then go back to being a mom. 🙂 The highs of being true to myself and some political/moral convictions I have had inside for a very long time, while fighting for ideals that matter to me born out of a desire help others. Yet deeper involvement also exposed vitriol and schisms and disagreements among a few I love that left some minor scars I would rub uncomfortably for a little while as if they ached with an uncomfortable pain.
A suffocating bubble of hate, ugliness, bitterness, fear, and anger, blown up at close range, blurred my vision and made me feel a sense of despair for humanity and its future. It also gave me a quietly despairing sense of aloneness.
But on this day, I felt an underlying excitement and hope. I felt a connection to the past, the chill somehow magnifying the brightness of the day in contrast to the dark and ugly days of slavery and repression. And a modern man who represents hope for many people, including myself–and I’m not talking about politics. I saw in the sea of black faces a group brought by pain and misfortune to bless this great nation in its time of need, and to add their rich conversation to America’s tapestry narrative. I saw heads held high with pride and hope and excitement (or teenage angst, if that is what I was correctly reading on one face).
I saw the goodness in this great democracy with its beautiful, peaceable transfer of power. Two divided parties standing together, without force or intimidation. And I remembered all the history books I’ve read and the blood that paid the dear price that gave us our freedom, twice. That freedom is not something to take for granted. It is a precious commodity to be savored and to be used wisely. And never to squander or forget.
And last, my son, who was climbing over the family sofa as he played, dropped a penny on the seat next to me. I saw his copper face glinting in the morning light– that dear Abolitionist, who along with Dr. King literally gave his all to create change. Who was not the last martyr in the cause of freedom for all Americans. Someone who had the courage to stand up and be counted against the ugliness in his day.
I, like many, a month ago, was devastated by the horrible, evil act that one man had perpetrated on little innocent first graders. Despair for the lot of humanity, lack of understanding for this horrible act, it filled my soul with darkness for a time. And then I saw 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting’s photo, as shared by a friend on Facebook:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” — Mister Rogers
Remember the helpers. The helpers like Martin Luther King, Jr, and Abraham Lincoln, and my ultimate hero, Jesus Christ. Like millions of people all over the world who perform quiet acts of goodness and seek to heal others’ wounds. They are the bright light that can fill the space and dispel the gloom of the ugliness and hate. Because the helpers far outnumber the haters, when you take a step back.
That is the hope of this democracy. That is the hope that shines through some of the pernicious deeds and imperfections of humankind. The freedoms, the healers, the helpers. The sweet land of the “noble free.”
In spite of our differences, we were standing together, letting “all that breathe partake.” We were celebrating this great nation, our vast sea of diverse faces, celebrating the heroes that fought for religious liberty and self determination and the right to hold our heads high regardless of our background. Celebrating victories against ugliness. All symbolized on a chilly January morning as a freely elected man placed his hand on two Bibles, brought together, the Bibles of two of America’s greatest helpers–living, well-worn reminders that we can hold on to the good, together, and move forward to help.
This song touched me on this day. What beautiful words.
My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!
Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom’s song;
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.
Our fathers’ God to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom’s holy light,
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King.