When Covid-19 decided to take a ride across the great waters of the Pacific, I had the fleeting impression that maybe a non-partisan virus which could possibly see no color nor economic diversity could somehow heal the wounds of our country. We do not suffer gaping wounds of attack or combat but a battle of values and opinions, beliefs and ideologies. For a few days and maybe even a few short weeks, the genuine compassion and unity of the American public brought peace and hope to my heart and then as the weeks turned into months, the divide that has split America decided to crack wide open with a force that is unprecedented in American History. Or is it?
In just a few short months, we have learned that somehow this virus does see color and class as it has swept through our poorest communities and devastated the neighborhoods which still stand, grievously, divided by color and lie vulnerable and unpadded by wealth. The battle being waged before this pandemic was already causing rifts between lifelong friendships, familial relations, neighbors and communities. The fracture, so deep and far-reaching, that what we face today seems insurmountable to overcome. This is my fear that I believe is shared by so many others. I fear the fragmentation of society and our loss of humanity far more than I fear the virus.
The great American author, Homer Hickman once wrote about an experience that he shared with a Pakistani physician aboard an empty plane just a few short days after the terror of September 11. “He was extremely nervous, both because he was afraid someone might mistake him for a terrorist and he was afraid one of the other five passengers might actually be a terrorist.” Hickman sat by this man and they began to talk. The man’s fears began to subside as these two very different men shared their stories and perspectives.
Do we not face these feelings each and every day right now? We may not be worried about a terrorist who can bring down great towers, but we worry about that which we cannot see. A novel virus, meaning no one has immunity and there is no vaccine. We worry for our elderly and our health compromised, we worry for those communities most susceptible, we worry for impoverished neighborhoods whose road to financial recovery may be neverending, we worry about getting sick, we worry what others think about us (whether we wear a mask or not), we worry we will say the wrong thing, we will post the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing, we worry that we don’t smile enough, that we smile too much. We just plain worry. Is it possible to live our lives without fear? There is a Christian scripture that says, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Homer Hickman has written extensively on learning to live your life without fear. Living without fear is the attitude of those who survive the most perilous times. “We are proud of who we are. We stand up for what we believe. We keep our families together. We trust in God but rely on ourselves.”
Admittedly, I sometimes suffer from pretty severe anxiety. Enough so, that occasionally, I take medication to calm my fears. I have, however, learned over the years that truly the best way to face uncertainty and fear, is to do simply that, face whatever it is and move forward. I have to rely on myself, have confidence in who I am and trust in God that all will be well. I have always lived my life in a way that others might never know I carry fear with me. I know that I could easily be debilitated and brought down by that which causes my heart to race, my hands to shake, my words to speed up as I lose my breath and my mind to lose focus. I could shutter myself away and never experience life in the fullness that I deserve. I could but I refuse to bow down in despair. Sadly, today, this fear isn’t playing the violin in front a group of people, or taking photos of a wedding, it is a fear that we are actually afraid of one another. A fear that I couldn’t imagine just a few short months ago. The same fear that the Pakistani doctor shared with Homer Hickman on that unnerving and empty plane ride. A fear he could not have known days before.
There is a wonderful yet often forgotten commandment given throughout the scriptures and imparted even before the birth and death of the Savior, “Fear not.” These two words may not have been preceded by “thou shalt not” but there is absolutely no doubt that if we can choose to live by these two simple words, that our lives will have more meaning, be more productive, even more adventurous and certainly be more joyful.
All Americans are familiar with “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We know that when this was written, in 1776, these words were penned for its white originators but there were some, I hope, who believed in these unalienable rights for all. We certainly know that later, Lincoln, humbly but without reservation, proposed that “All men are created equal.” I believe in life. Life is a treasure and a gift and we all deserve to be allowed to live it to its fullest. I believe in liberty and that within every soul lies the capacity to reach for their own truths, live them and have the fundamental freedom to choose. Most of all, I believe in the pursuit of happiness, not necessarily in the material sense but to be able to live in a way that we can feel true joy and seek after those things which bring us spiritual, physical and emotional happiness. It is a phrase that all men (and women) are endowed with and have a right to as citizens of this remarkable nation.
Today is Memorial Day. This is the day that we fly our flags and honor all American soldiers, who have departed this earth on behalf of their country. Soldiers who have enlisted by choice, by draft and others who had no other way to survive. Soldiers from fortune and power to those who signed their names from the shadowy corners of our poorest towns. We honor soldiers of all colors, religions and faiths who have fought and perished. However, this holiday’s origins are rooted beneath our nation’s own soil and entwined amongst the long forgotten bones of the Civil War dead. A time when the chasm in our country was every bit as insurmountable as it is today. A time when people feared oftentimes, their friends and even family. How could these citizens have faced a war that pitted one brother against another? Are we any different today?
Lincoln once stood, in the bitter November winds and dedicated the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the very site of one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles of the Civil War. He did so with the desire for “a new birth for freedom” in remembrance of the catastrophic sacrifices and casualties that befell both the Union and Confederate armies. Lincoln delivered his eloquent address in less than two minutes admonishing Americans that they stood to lose their country if they did not come together in the noble cause of freedom. He said, it was up to the living to confront the “great task” before them: ensuring that; “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The Gettysburg Address was not written to incite fear but to end it. Lincoln wished with every fiber of his being to end the heartache and loss that had taken over those he had sworn to protect and lead. The enemy was not outside his borders but within. The words flowed from the mouth of a great man who was also stricken from melancholy and severe depression. Abraham Lincoln’s fear was so great that he had to examine his own soul, continually, just to stay alive. He faced his own mortality constantly and had to develop crucial skills, great strength and creative outlets to forge forward with strength and fortitude. He feared immensely but he lived to “fear not” and he admonished all to fight for happiness.
I may lean left and right and all kinds of in between in my political views but there are three things that are unfaltering in the core of my gut and that is my belief in God, country and family. I may not have ever faced a soldier in battle, but I, once, shed tears as I stood before the Vietnam Wall. Just recently, I wept in the airport as a service man was offered the seat of a first-class passenger. This during pandemic times, given by a man who likely bought that seat for his own personal safety yet who moved to the back of the plane out of patriotic respect. I pretend not to cry each and every single time we stand for the National Anthem and my heart bursts as the stars and stripes cross a rodeo floor held high by some small town’s hero. It’s true that my hand over heart sentimentality always gets the very best of me. I stand in awe of my brothers who stood where others wouldn’t and faced the fears of every American. I hold great love in my heart for my grandfather who left home to protect the freedoms of others and pride for my dad who served the Air Force as a civil servant. With each memoir, movie or story that shares the life of a person with a cause, a person who stands up for what is right or fights for the right to human decency, liberty and freedom, I feel the truths deep within my own soul. We all deserve to be free of fear, especially, the fear of one another.
As our flags fly this weekend, instead of criticizing the flights of the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds who fly in support of our health care and front line workers, we might instead remember June 25th, 1950, the day that the Korean War started and every single one of the Blue Angels pilots volunteered for combat duty, including Lt. Commander John Magda who never came home. Aren’t we glad, that (at least for now) they do not have to make this decision? Yet, instead, these past weeks, they have faced a country who was waiting with fear and anger and mistrust. We have the right, because of these patriots and others like them, to argue their expensive show of aerial display but instead, we can choose to give these pilots a mutual gesture of respect for those who’ve gone before, who protect us now and who will continue to serve. These men and women deserve to not fly in fear because of us.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., one of America’s great jurists but who was most proud of his service during the Civil War, gave one of the most poignant Memorial Day Speeches ever penned. He said about this day, “it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall-at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory.”
We are, currently, caught up in a biological war and those who have the skills and knowledge are truly carrying this burden and responsibility for us on the front lines. They are facing their fears with ours on their shoulders. Many have died for this cause but their deaths will be in vain if we are losing the other battle of humanity and loss of respect and compassion in our communities and with our families, with our friends and our neighbors. I hope that as we face each tomorrow, even as we face an uncertain future and endeavors that may be long and hard, that we contribute to healing our community and nation’s fractures instead of deepening them.
On Memorial Day, we remember those who faced fear with the concerns, doubt and despairs of their loved ones also weighing them down. Their ashes are scattered across the earth and settled into the deepest depths of the oceans so that we might live in this, the greatest of nations and not have fear, especially of one another. Our past is great and even noble but it is also marred in the mistakes and fears of man. What are these mistakes if we cannot move forward and learn from them? Fear is a choice and we choose how we react, how we treat others, how we live. We must do all that we can to conquer and overcome those things which we face with hope, fortitude and faith because fear is dangerous and we shall not be afraid.