“Praise Song for the Day,” by Elizabeth Alexander
From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
“A true act of love, unlike imaginary love, is hard and forbidding. . . . It requires hard work and patience, and for some, it is a whole way of life. But I predict that at the very moment when you see despairingly that, despite all your efforts, you have not only failed to come closer to your goal, but, indeed, seem even farther from it than ever – at that very moment you will have achieved it.”
It was a blustery, sunshiny day with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark when Elizabeth Alexander walked up to the microphones on a podium constructed on the west side of the U.S. Capitol. Hatless and dressed in a warm, red coat, looking out on what may have been the largest audience ever to attend a presidential inauguration, she set about telling a story of our nation.
It was a story that unreeled far from the TV cameras and dignitaries present on that historic day in Washington, D.C., a story of ordinary people who, she said, “go about our business,” business that had those people “walking past each other, catching each other’s eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.”
Her words echoed those of Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy, a century before, when she spoke of people “stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a hole in a tire.” A woman and her son, she said, “wait for the bus, a farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, take out your pencils. Begin.”
But there was a different tone here: a wariness or perhaps just watchfulness that she perceives moving through the scene that Whitman never really picked up. “All about us is noise,” she said. “All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues.”
In this nation of immigrants, there are stories, she suggested, that each of us carries a part of, but that for some is a greater burden than others.
It’s not just the cacophony of busy people, but also thorns and brambles that catch at clothes and tear flesh, all of which speak of some stories told not in the light of day but whispered from one generation to the next, the legacy of hard loss and unrealized hope.
As an African American poet speaking at the inauguration of America’s first African American president, Alexander took hold of the opportunity to lay before the nation the historic achievement before them: “Say it plain: that many have died for this day.” Military heroes, yes, but also, once again, ordinary people who perished in unmarked graves or were traded as chattel, yet who “laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices,” including among them the Capital building before which she stood.
But, the business of the day, Alexander told the crowd, was not recrimination, but praise. Praise “for the struggle” that it took to get there – for each hand-lettered sign of protest brought to a freedom march, for people determined to find “something better down the road,” for people who had the courage to “walk into that which we cannot see.”
What her poem offered in the end was a story of redemption – not individual redemption but the possibility of our nation’s redemption from a troubled past into a more hopeful future, where, she said, “anything can be made, any sentence begun.”
I have to say that as powerful as Alexander’s 2009 poem was, it had pretty much faded from my awareness until this last summer when I heard the radio interviewer Krista Tippett bring it up when she spoke at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio. Tippett had just published a new book, Becoming Wise – An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, and she told us she was struggling to come to grips with what she found to be disturbing trends in what she called “our common life” in this country.
Coping with a diversity of interests and identities has always been a challenge for us, but she says in her book that in our current struggles with divisions over race and class she sees something new, what she calls “a surfacing of grief.”
And that grief, she suggests, has come about as a result of the breakdown of cultural coping strategies. Tippett told us in Columbus that she remembered growing up in the 60s, when diversities of all kinds were stretching the social fabric, being taught the virtue of tolerance. It sounded good. Live and let live, right? But in fact, she said, tolerance was too small a word for what was needed at the time.
Tolerance, after all, connotes a kind of cerebral assent of allowing or enduring, putting up with each other. Fine, but in the end the problem with tolerance, she said, is that “it doesn’t invite us to understand, to be curious, to be open, to be moved, or surprised by another.”
Nowadays, in our public dialog not only does the notion of tolerance seem a sham, she says, but “we’ve begun to hold the question of hate in public life, creating a new legal category of crimes (hate crimes) to name the breakdown when tolerances gives out and the human condition at its worst rushes in.”
For those caught in the midst of this, it can be a source of despair, but for the rest of us simple bewilderment. As Tippett says, “we don’t know where to begin to change our relationship with the strangers who are our neighbors.” If tolerance guides our interactions, there is always a distance between ourselves and the other. Now, now, leave them alone. That’s not our business.
Live and let live teaches us hands off. Rather than empathize with or extend our moral imagination to another, the operative guidance is, “Let it be.” And so, the crises that rip apart other people’s lives are starved of the living oxygen of real human drama and devolve into issues that become subject to debate and policy solutions.
And yet, Krista Tippett says, “we know in our hearts and minds that we are bigger and wilder and more precious than numbers, more complex than any economic outcome or political prescription can describe.”
And so, she says, it comes as a surprise that “at every turn, I hear the word love surfacing as a longing for common life, quietly but persistently and in unexpected places.”
Love? Really? In families, sure. In romantic partnerships, of course. But in our common life?
But here comes Elizabeth Alexander proclaiming from the steps of the U.S. Capital. It’s not really so strange, she says. “Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself, others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.” Can you not see a thread through all this?
Beyond marital, filial, national love, a deeper chord sounds of a love, that, she says, has no need to pre-empt grievance, that doesn’t rank one person’s claim as higher than another’s, that instead casts a widening pool of light.
“What if the mightiest word is love?” she says. Not the sweetest word or the happiest word, full of hearts and flowers. What if the word “love” names something elemental, akin to a force of nature, something that, in an interview with Tippett, Alexander called “sober” and “grave”? Such love, Alexander said, “can do more than tolerate dissent in difference. (It) can sit with it, take it in, listen to it, let it stand.” It is guided by a need not to conquer or subdue but to know and connect.
Even more, Tippett says, Alexander’s question “invites each of us out of our aloneness.” Tolerant, tolerable folks are like atoms, bouncing off each other but never engaging. Aspiration for love, she says, “sends us inside” to know and honor who we are, then “coaxes us out again to an encounter with the vastness of human identity.”
In a sense, none of this is new. As Krista Tippett points out, “spiritual geniuses have always called humanity to love.” And still we shy away. There are many reasons for it, but mostly it’s because we don’t get into the habit. And it’s scary, since to use our tender hearts we must come to know them. That means that we must open them, examine them, share them. We’re more inclined to protect them – they are so easily wounded, so easily hurt. Aggression, anger, control – they look so much stronger, even if in the end they only bring us to grief.
There is probably no person who understands this better than the Civil Rights leader John Lewis. Time and again he stood up to violent abuse while remaining nonviolent himself. People examining the movement, he says, puzzled over how he could endure all that, but his answer was simple.
Writing in his book, Across that Bridge, Lewis said that “if you boiled down our intent into one all-encompassing residual word the remaining essence would be love.” Lewis said he would read observers writings about how for this or that reason the campaign of non-violence was an effective tactic. But those observers, he said, missed the point. “It was for us a way of authentically living our lives,” he said.
It’s a way of being in the world that judges our effectiveness not by the results we achieve but by how true we are to our center. And that’s important because on that path achievements can sometimes be hard to come by.
I came upon a story by the writer Mark Yaconelli about his experience helping out at a small church across the street from a college in Oregon. The church had received a grant to start a new prayer service. He had written books on prayer and worked with youth and felt certain he could to it. He persuaded the minister to give him the job. Over the next month he made sure the service was publicized widely, he recruited musicians to play and women from the church to prepare a meal.
Three hours before the first service he came to set up the chapel. He lit up candles, arranged flowers, prepared the bulletins. Fifteen minutes before it started he positioned himself at the door with a broad smile, watching as groups of students walked up toward the church – and then kept walking. Not a soul showed up for the service.
What do you do if you throw a party and nobody comes? Worse, what if you had put your very heart into it, something you felt was a great gift to the world?
Yaconelli went through the service with the half dozen people from the church who were there. As per his agreement with the church he went on with the weekly service for the next nine months. Not a single student ever appeared, though eventually a few more church members began to show. And in time among these a deepening closeness grew. When his contract finally ended, several of those participants shared with him how that simple weekly service had changed their lives.
It was on reflecting on this experience that Yaconelli brought to mind those challenging words from Dostoyevsky that I shared with you earlier: A true act of love is tough and forbidding, requiring hard work and patience. And yet, as Dostoyevsky’s character, Father Zossima, puts it, it may be that at that point when you are most certain you have failed utterly you will find you have achieved it.
There’s no denying it: Love is a hard road. I think this especially as we look ahead to this coming Tuesday. It has been an election campaign full of the filthiest superlatives, and whatever its resolution – and I do have a rather strong preference – we have some serious repair work to do to rebuild our common life.
I think back to the day that Elizabeth Alexander delivered her poem and shake my head. Remember? Commentators speculated that, just maybe, the election of our first black president had turned the tide to a post-racial America. Sure there were issues among us, but perhaps we were ready to reach across the aisle, across the cross the color line, across all that divided us and find solutions. No, not really. Not yet.
Instead, it’s time to get back to work. We can mistake what love is about on a sunshiny day when hope is buoyant. We can wrongly assume that it’s about smiles and good feelings. Sure, it’s nice when we get them. But if love is to prevail it must be more than that. It must be a discipline. It must be, as John Lewis put it, “a way of authentically living our lives.”
It must be a way that we hold to even when nobody shows up, even on cloudy, rainy, stormy days. There will be moments when its demands on us are sober and grave, and yet we stick to it anyway because our hearts will allow no less, because it is the only way we are each invited out of our aloneness.
Once again we stand, as Elizabeth Alexander imagined us, “on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,” called to “walk into that which we cannot see.”
Praise to the brave souls with open hearts who still see that anything can be made, any sentence begun as we walk forward together into that light.