At the inauguration ceremony of President Joe Biden, Amanda Gorman, the 22 year-old poet laureate, read her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” which begins with the words: “We ask ourselves when can we find light in this never- ending shade?” She goes on to say that: “Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” Further, she adds, “But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.” And, “We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be a country that is bruised, but whole, benevolent, but bold, fierce and free.” She concludes “… there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Inspiring, uplifting words for sure—and a theme appropriate not just for an inauguration—(especially one during a time of crises that have attacked our bodies and our institutions) but also, these are words appropriate for new beginnings. Many people have similar feelings. There are countless articles offering advice. For example, Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, writes: “You have to go into this year with dreams, there’s no other way to do it…we got through 2020 with pictures of normality in our heads. In a few months they’ll start to come through.” Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, recently penned an article that found some possible positive aspects to these troubling times, writing: “If we’re fortunate and wise, we will allow the traumatizing effects of the Trump years to catalyze a rededication to the ideals we once cherished in public life…America is fragmented, but also chastened, perhaps ready to rise again.” David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, wrote: “We’ve been through an emotional four years. Suddenly, the sky has cleared. It’s possible America may emerge from this trauma more transformed than we can imagine.”
Much has also been written about making personal plans for the future—a sort of mental checklist of things we can’t wait to do—coupled with some anxiety and concern about handling the possible difference we’ll feel enjoying simply pleasures, plus some awkwardness to resuming old routines and of course, the sad reckoning for many, that someone is missing. Still, we should make the to-do list of things for the “after”: Going to the movies, catching a ball game, having a beer with friends at the local bar, Sunday Mass, hugging your mom, sharing a joke in the elevator with your co-workers, really enjoying a day off from work. And not wear- ing a mask.
Yes, wearing a mask at the super- market, pharmacy and when picking up your take-out food order will all be joyously abandoned at the appropriate time, but so many of the measures and side-effects of the world we lived in may be harder to discard and are subject to debate. The change in the way we do business (do we really need an office?), how we interact when face-to-face (no more handshakes?) and even new words in our vocabulary, will long linger on. Zoom, PPE, remote learning, social distancing, mail-in ballots, essential workers and hydroxychloroquine are all words we may not have been familiar with before the pandemic, but now are words we surely won’t forget when it’s over.
And words clearly have their effect. The old adage: “The pen is mightier than the sword” (although today, updated to: the computer or super-spreader events,) gives testimony to the impact of words. They cannot be minimized. But, as Peggy Noonan asks: can a good inaugural speech heal the nation? Her conclusion is: “No. But it can assert an attitude, can turn the page, help people feel something better… encourage citizens to take part.” In President’s Biden’s inaugural address, he said: “Here we stand, where 108 years ago at another inaugural, thousands of protest- ers tried to block women march- ing for the right to vote.” He also said: “Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World Wars, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice and setbacks, our better angels have always prevailed…History, faith and reason show the way… the way of unity. Without unity there can be only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.” President Biden continued, “Disagreement must not lead to disunion…We must end this uncivil war that pits red blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls of hardening our hearts.” Biden’s commitment and call to action was: ”My whole soul is in this: Bringing America together…I ask every American to join me in this cause.” And, as Amanda Gorman wrote in her poem: “So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left with.”
Clearly, the hill we must now climb is very steep, but the rewards are even greater. To help get us there, try to remember the things you enjoyed before our world was upended, and let’s work to get them back—but even better. Not only for us, but for our children.