“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disentrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
President Abraham Lincoln said this in his message to Congress in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War as our country struggled to preserve our Union and our Democracy.
We are in a similar moment today with incredible division and attacks on our democracy as well as a global pandemic which has disrupted our lives at every level. This moment requires a leadership which looks forward and not backward longingly to the past. Too often we are being told that “soon we will get back to normal” or “let us recapture the days of yesterday once we get through this”. To me that is exactly the wrong message.
Too often when we are wounded in our personal relationships whether it is through loss outside of our control, a betrayal of trust by a intimate friend, or our own mistakes which alter the landscape of vulnerability within our hearts or the heart of another, we long for the past. We long for what the relationship used to be like, or a trust that used to exist, or a past that in our present turmoil seems more peaceful and loving.
In our present intimate personal circles, if we stay stuck longing for the past, we often become self-absorbed, cynical, bitter and are not able to move forward. We tell ourselves a victim story that if the awful hadn’t occurred things would be like they used to be, and the past is seen as vastly better than our present. By longing for the past, we stay stuck in our present, and we are not able to step forward and create a different but better future. Healing really begins to occur when we set our sights forward, and begin to see a vision for the future, and then making slow and steady steps toward that future.
As with most of life, the lessons we need to heed in the close small circles of our life are also the lessons that apply to the larger circles of life and our country. As a nation the only way we will begin to truly heal and come together in union to build a country befitting the 21st century is to let go of the past, and set sail towards a vision for a new future. We can create a democracy with true universal suffrage which retains the values of equality, justice, freedom, and integrity but is something different from what we see in the rearview mirror.
We must ask ourselves what should a multi-cultural multi-ethnic democracy look like in the 21st century that benefits the common good and opens the best avenue for a diverse leadership which seeks justice and a belief that all men and women are created equal. We need to ask which institutions or structures from the past still fit that vision and which institutions and structures either no longer assist us in that future or block us from achieving that goal. What norms get in the way or what norms are needed to fulfill that vision? How does our citizenry need to be educated on that path and what history do we need to understand so that we don’t repeat mistakes of yesterday? What are the responsibilities of a news and media environment in this journey towards a multi-cultural democracy, and what standards should they be held accountable to be a positive force in achieving this vision? What are the types of leaders do we need today to get us to this future?
There are many questions we need to ask ourselves and our leaders to begin to chart this course. We should be open-minded to ways which may not match the past decades, and open-hearted to the fear and anxiety citizens may feel as we venture into the unknown. We should actively listen and strive for consensus of what is the most equitable way to achieve a new and renewed democracy.
However, before all these questions are asked and then answered, we must do two things to do as Lincoln said to “disenthrall ourselves”. First, let us stop longing for the past, and begin longing for a future that while different helps us meet the problems of the present, and builds a foundation for a new America. Second, as we move towards a longing for a future and look ahead instead of backward, we have to begin being more clear-eyed in the vision in the distance and see at least rough elements of the horizon out over the choppy seas we are currently navigating.
We can do this, and I am hopeful and excited about the prospect about stepping out into the mystery and unknown of America in the 21st century which serves all in new and creative ways. Let us “think anew and act anew”.