Due to the foibles of flight schedules, I had some unexpected downtime in DC, and found myself wandering the Mall. I don’t think I’ve been here since I was in eighth grade, and it made a very different impression on me now. I suspect that the first time, I was much more concerned about the pressing matters of who I’d sit with on the bus, and what those girls were whispering, and when we’d be able to shop for trinkets that made us feel somehow more complete.
Now walking through these monuments I thought about the sweep of history. About the times of great challenge when exceptional women and men stand up and stand out, not for themselves but in service of hope. About Martin Luther King Jr standing on this very place, his magnificent voice booming over this wide arcade and around the globe. Giving himself utterly to a higher purpose, his message echoing through the hearts of those for, neutral, and even opposed, calling something deeper in them.
And in that same park, stones with golden signatures from the Declaration of Independence. People standing up for something “impossible,” something bigger than their own gain — and in so doing galvanizing hope and reverence and the power of human spirit. Again, in giving to a larger vision, these leaders opened a door wide enough for allies and enemies alike.
Sprinkled though this garden are monuments to wisdom and to sacrifice. It’s so difficult to tell in the moment-to-moment of our daily lives, but in the sweep of history it becomes clear. Great purpose requires the most exceptional commitment, but there’s a razor-edge between sacrifice for pride and sacrifice for promise.
On a more personal scale, I finally saw the Vietnam Wall — it wasn’t here when I was a boy-hoping-to-be-a-man. I thought of Hank, my father, and how many of these shipmate’s names were carved into his heart as indelibly as they are carved into the granite. I thought of all these other men who’s names are carved in the granite, who now might be grandfathers too.
In the brilliance of this monument I couldn’t help but see generations reflected in the stone. The passing crowds of all ages, bright colors dancing on the wall. Some faces closed in loss, some somber in reflection, others chatting about the pressing matters like who they’d sit next to on the bus… Then finally I willed myself to look at my own reflection in the stone, and thought of the legacy of war and how it’s a part of my own story. I could see myself through the names of those who died so far away fighting for a myth of pride and arrogance and fear.
I wondered what kind of monument we will make for the women and men fighting today. I wondered if those who toil in the marble corridors of power take time out to look over at this somber granite and consider the way their choices will reflect outward in the lives of ordinary people, into the faces of future generations who walk by remembering. It’s so easy to point a finger at “them,” but if I’m going to learn something here I recognize I also need to look at myself in this wall.
Here we are in an era of upheaval, with fear and uncertainty rampant, with nearly desperate problems on every side. Perhaps the most profound challenges humanity has ever faced. What can I do, one ordinary man, amidst all the difficulties we face? Isn’t there a new hero who can save us?
Perhaps in times of greatest challenge it takes both the most ordinary and the most exceptional women and men stand up and stand out, not for themselves but in service of hope.
In the past, we’ve needed someone stand on the marble steps and call forth our commitment. Perhaps today’s challenges will also require us each to do so. There is a quiet voice of wisdom that dwells in every one of us, but it is easily shouted down by the clamor of what we each want now. That quiet voice of wisdom speaks quietly through a feeling of what’s truly precious — we know when we are in integrity because we feel it.
So where do we find the wisdom to step out from those compelling immediate concerns of daily life and to commit to something larger? This commitment is not comfortable, it’s much easier, and perhaps even more in our nature, to attend to the “seat on the bus matters” rather than the “sweep of history matters.” In either case it’s emotion driving us, but perhaps there are multiple voices of those feelings. For example, fear can sweep us unconsciously into matters of unimportant urgency, into a bid for comfort. But if we use emotional intelligence and look deeper, that same fear can tell us something truly vital is at stake.
When we do get that deeper insight, we also get an important benefit. Emotion is information, and it is power. When we tune up our awareness and attend to what’s truly important, we liberate the energy of those strongest of convictions. Then we can use the power of our feelings to commit, to sacrifice for what matters.
Perhaps in a hundred years there will be a new monument here, not commemorating a great woman or man, and neither honoring lives cut short, but reminding future generations of how people like you and I did what was right. About how we shifted our attention away from comfort and convenience and toward the survival of our communities. Away from being right over others and toward caring-in-action. Away from taking and toward healing our shared home.
Are you ready?