Monday, November 19, 2012

Better Angels

Yesterday I went to see Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln. I wanted to see it but was a little apprehensive since the trailer made it look rather dark and brooding. However, I knew I would see it sooner or later, and a friend was also interested in going, so off we went to a matinee.

This is not the first time Mr. Spielberg has made a film that leaves you feeling you have immersed yourself rather than simply watched; Schindler's List was another experience of the same type. I would say, though, that the emotional tenor of the two films is very different. Schindler's List evokes horror and pity (among other things), but Lincoln inspired, in me at least, an intense sadness mixed with a painful awareness of the great personal cost of honor and responsibility. There are lighter moments in the film, and Lincoln's legendary sense of humor is glimpsed now and again, but by the end you feel that you have witnessed (and truly, participated in) a terrible struggle.

In the middle of a cruel and seemingly interminable war, amid personal tragedy, and in the face of resistance and hostility, even from his allies, Lincoln struggles to secure passage of the 13th Amendment, to abolish slavery. The film details the deals, the personal appeals, the compromises, the shaky alliances, and the strange bedfellows that went into producing a victory for the pro-amendment side. Mr. Spielberg has emphasized that he is a filmmaker, not a historian, so I don't necessarily assume complete faithfulness to actual events. But I think the spirit of the times, and the flavor of the struggle, as incendiary and divisive as it must have been, has been captured in this somber portrait of the era.

Of course, there is a lot of mythology surrounding Lincoln, as with any great leader. He embodies the hero archetype, and although he appears as a near saint in this portrayal, with his patience, wisdom, and compassion, he no doubt had his faults as a human being.  Political expediency was a reality, and others did not always view him as "trustworthy." It appears he was not above using whatever means he could find to accomplish what seemed to him a necessary end.

As is usually true of myth, Lincoln's story is timeless, having parallels in our own recent struggles as a nation to carry on in spite of great polarization. Although we do not perhaps have an issue as momentous as slavery dividing us, we have to contend with differing ideas about the proper course for our country and the best way to achieve prosperity. Again, the two major political parties frequently lock horns and fail to connect when it counts, and the public, too, is divided.

I don't think the divisions we have today create an impassable road block, any more than they did in Lincoln's time. Reasonable people may disagree on the best way to move forward; no one has a monopoly on virtue, intelligence, or truth. One thing I know about conflict resolution is that the way to start is to find the common ground, the place where everyone can stand and say, yes, we all agree on this. It may not be as difficult to find this place as it appears. Some disagreements are more superficial than they might seem to be at first.

I was moved to look up some of Lincoln's writings today, which happens to be the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg address (and the occasion of Spielberg's commemorative speech in honor of the day at Soldier's National Cemetery). Even if we did not remember Lincoln as a great president, we would have to remember him as a great writer, poetic and eloquent even in the face of tension and opposition. From the First Inaugural Address: "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, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

From the Gettysburg Address: "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

From the Second Inaugural Address: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

What I gather from his words and actions was Lincoln's faith in his country and the ability of those within it to come together (and also to come together with the citizens of other countries). Another archetype emerges from all of this, that of wholeness and integration -- what we experience as the Self, present in our sense of relating to something larger than ourselves (though we also experience wholeness within). I think most people would still agree that we are stronger together than we are apart, whether we are talking of families, communities, nations, or the world at large.

I wish I had written the phrase, "the better angels of our nature," but I didn't. However, that may not stop me from borrowing it for my title, with full credit to Abraham Lincoln. It's in the public domain, so it belongs to all of us now.