And You Will Have Done Enough

It’s been two weeks since Donald J. Trump was declared president-elect of the United States, and while things have calmed down slightly, we’re still a far piece from that “perfect union” our Founding Fathers envisioned.

The night after the election, the hubs and I went on a date. (Yes, on a Wednesday. And we paid for it the next day. Oh brother, did we pay for it.) Why put ourselves in such a spot? Because when Madeleine Peyroux is playing City Winery, you go regardless of what day it is. (If you’ve never heard of her, are you in for a treat. I’ve included one of my favorites below to get you started. You can thank me later.)

During the fifth or sixth song in her opening set, the woman sitting in front of me—a striking older beauty in a cream colored sweater and smart cloche hat—nearly knocked her glass of merlot over. Without thinking, I reached over and caught it. (Old waitress reflexes never die apparently.) Smiling, she whispered her thanks, and I leaned in to tell her it was my pleasure. I suppose that little act of kindness unlocked something in her because, without warning, she turned to me and said in a much louder voice, “I don’t know what to do about this election. I don’t understand it! I’m worried about our safety and the economy and immigrants….”

I tried for the better part of sixteen bars to get her to speak more softly, all to no avail. People began looking at us, shooting very polite darts in our direction. The more she talked, the more overwrought she became, so I went for the obvious. “Darlin,” I told her, “there are worries out there to be sure. But for now, you have lovely music, the company of friends, and a glass of wine in your hand. Leave the rest outside for an hour or so.”

She smiled at me—soothed by those words—patted my hand, and turned back to the music. We didn’t speak again until the end of the show, but before I left, I put a hand on her shoulder and gave her the only truth I knew: “The person in the White House, whoever it is, doesn’t impact you all that much really. You can still love your neighbor. You can still show kindness to others. Nothing can stop you from trying to impact your world for the better.” I could tell it helped her to hear someone say it, and truth be told, it lightened my spirits to give the thought voice. It’s been hard for me to deal with this election, even knowing what I know as a Christian—that this world doesn’t get the final say and that, praise God, there’s a better one coming. As believers, we play the long game. But that doesn’t stop us from losing sight of the truth…or from losing our good sense once in awhile.

I’m sure this is somehow a steal from Wendell Berry (who has already said most of the good things worth saying), but I’m of the belief that we aren’t meant to solve all the world’s problems. It’s our job to faithfully tend the little corner of earth assigned to us and nothing more. We are to love and aid those around us, to care for the parts of the world we call home, and if we all pitch in and do our bit, all the little corners will get tended. That’s what I was trying to tell her—the woman who was my neighbor for the briefest of moments—that it’s all going to be okay.

In Life TogetherDietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for [God] the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point are great times for the church are times when it’s pulled down. It is a great comfort which Jesus gives to his church. You confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is not your providence. Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough…. Live together in the forgiveness of your sins. Forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.”

Read that last bit again, “Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough.” Mercy, I can do that. I can try. That gives me a little room to breathe and puts things back in the right perspective. From that point of view, the world doesn’t seem quite so dire. A thought like that pushes the bleakness back.

The next morning as I drove to work, bleary-eyed and droopy from a night spent gadding around like a college kid, I saw something out of the corner of my eye that gave me even greater cause for hope. It was dark, so I couldn’t be quite sure of what I saw. But it gave me something to think on and daydream about all day. That afternoon, I beat the same worth path home, excited to find out if what I’d seen had been real or some kind of mirage, one created by wishful thinking rather than thirst. And much to my surprise and delight, I saw it was real.

 

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Some lovely soul took the time to make a sign that simply said “Love People and Be Kind” in chunky black marker. Someone else had thought the matter over, come to the same conclusion as I, and had taken the first step by posting this advice on a busy Atlanta road. I look for it every day now, and it never fails to bring me joy.

There is a way to not just to survive the hot mess that is 2016 but to thrive in it. And the solution has nothing to do with a non-profit initiative, a protest march, or a government program. Each of us is called to do those two simple things. If we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, there’s precious little else that needs doing because, well, we will have done enough.

Selah.

 

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Handwriting and Handwringing

Last weekend, the hubs and I were in New York City to visit the Morgan Library & Museum so I could clap eyes on the original manuscript for Jane Eyre, my all-time favorite book. The exhibit, Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will, is well worth seeing if you’re in or near the area, and it will be at the Morgan through January 2, 2017. Here are a few snapshots I took while we were there.

 

 

There were several other wonderful exhibits there, including Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It, too, was a fascinating collection, well curated and solid in scope. From it, I learned a great deal not only about Luther himself but also the men who helped get his message out and the printing press, that revolutionary machine that democratized the Christian faith in Europe.

 

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In between exhibits, we went super fancy and had high tea. Total “pinkies up” experience for both of us.

 

We finished our day by visiting Pierpont Morgan’s 1906 library, divided into the North Room and West Room—both of which I was too busy ogling to take pictures of—and the amazing East Room that took my breath away.

 

But it was in the rotunda, a dazzling space of marble and light that divides the libraries, that I came across something unexpected: a letter written by George Washington on December 25, 1777. As you can see by the paragraph below the document, this wasn’t a document of great import. It wasn’t penned to celebrate the victory at Trenton, the loss at Brandywine, or the British surrender at Yorktown. It was simply a letter written to Elbridge Gerry, a member of the Second Continental Congress, requesting that plans be drawn up for the campaign that would take place at winter’s end. It’s the 18th century equivalent of an inner-office memo, but it stopped me dead in my tracks.

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I viewed this document on Saturday, October 8th, less than a 24 hours after Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood video surfaced and only a few days after Wikileaks dumped emails from John Podesta detailing the inner workings of the Clinton Campaign. Up until that moment, I had been floating on a cloud, five hours removed from the outside world and happily ensconced in a beautiful building surrounded by erudition and polite, dignified people. For a moment, I’d forgotten about the ugliness of the world outside the Morgan’s doors, especially the nefariousness that has been the 2016 election season. But, looking at this letter, I couldn’t help but be confronted by it all over again in a way I never expected.

Consider this. Washington was the United States’ first president and served two terms. He did so not because he wanted to but because he felt he must, and when his time of service was over, he surrendered power for the second time and walked away.

Imagine a president doing that now. Imagine Trump or Clinton surrendering authority, doing something for the greater good of the United States. Yeah, I know. It’s disheartening.

Washington was born into a farming family in Virginia and though he was fairly well educated and prosperous, I always get the sense he felt himself an outsider in many ways. Hence, he was always mindful of his manners and comportment. So much so, in fact, that in 1814 Thomas Jefferson said, “may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great.”

There’s evidence of it in the letter at the Morgan. I wish my photo of it was high-res so you could see for yourself, but believe me when I say his handwriting was immaculate. Each line was perfectly straight, every letter was exact. All leaned in the same direction and at the exact same angle. Any letter below the line had identically-sized loops. And he did this on a portable writing desk or rickety table in poor light, likely after a long day. Where did he learn such perfect penmanship? Like so many things, at school and through tireless repetition.

When he was sixteen, Washington’s schoolmaster had him copy 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, and it was a text that informed much of what he did as a soldier, a gentleman farmer, and a politician. As this website says: “Today many, if not all of these rules, sound a little fussy if not downright silly. It would be easy to dismiss them as outdated and appropriate to a time of powdered wigs and quills, but they reflect a focus that increasingly difficult to find. The rules have in common a focus on other people rather than the narrow focus of our own self-interests that we find so prevalent today. Fussy or not, they represent more than just manners. They are the small sacrifices that we should all be willing to make for the good of all and the sake of living together. These rules proclaim our respect for others and in turn give us the gift of self-respect and heightened self-esteem.”

Consider just a few of the bits of wisdom Washington lived by:

Number 40 — “Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.”

Number 48 — “Wherein you reprove Another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than Precepts.”

Number 49 — “Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.”

Number 56 — “Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ‘is better to be alone than in bad Company.”

Number 58 — “Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ‘is a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.”

Number 65 — “Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.”

Number 110 — “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

You get the idea.

Thankfully, this man set the standard other men (and perhaps one day women) should strive for as president.

As bio.com writes, “George Washington proved to be an able administrator. He surrounded himself with some of the most capable people in the country, appointing Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. He delegated authority wisely and consulted regularly with his cabinet listening to their advice before making a decision. Washington established broad-ranging presidential authority, but always with the highest integrity, exercising power with restraint and honesty. In doing so, he set a standard rarely met by his successors, but one that established an ideal by which all are judged.”

And today, less than 300 years later, we have two candidates who refer to the American people as a “basket of deplorables” and insist that when you are a star, you can grab women by the p***y and get away with it.

But Trump and Clinton didn’t force themselves on us. Both are products of a country who relinquished its ideals, who allowed ignorance to be celebrated rather than rejected, and who stopped actively participating in the grand, messy experiment that is the United States of America. Both he and she fall so short of the standard we should expect of a president–and of ourselves–that I stood before that humble, prosaic letter in the Morgan and cried. For Washington, for myself, and for this beautiful country.

The road back to those standards is a long one, and the return journey will be hard and full of bickering. But walk it we must because it’s our responsibility as a free people. Because as Washington said so beautifully in his first inaugural speech, “the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

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If you would like to read other letters by Washington, I highly recommend this page created by the University of Virginia. This site is also very interesting.