On January 18, 1996, Annjie, my sister in all things Bruce Springsteen, lined up two tickets for us to attend the Saint Louis performance of his “Ghost of Tom Joad” tour. Prior to that show, I had attended two earlier Saint Louis concerts where, “The Boss,” and his, E-Street Band, wrung every last bit of encore sweat out of their bodies until they collapsed. Part of the allure of a Springsteen concert is joining with an artist who is giving every last bit of himself to his audience, not only his poetry and music, but also, his physical strength.
On an appropriately cold January night in 1996, my third experience of Bruce, there was no band, no sweat, and no splashing water on himself so that he could continue until he collapsed. There was only Bruce Springsteen on a stool under a spotlight, his only accompaniment: a guitar and harmonica. It took me awhile, but eventually I came around to appreciate this spare and sparse performance. As the concert progressed, it was as if the person of Tom Joad, the broken main character of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and the artist before me melted into the same person. Years later, I read Springsteen’s autobiography. I came to understand why Springsteen inhabited the Tom Joad character so fully. Steinbeck’s character, and the rock and roll artist both knew a profound brokenness that formed a kinship between them. In a different, but unmistakable way, Bruce, once again, gave his audience everything.
In this week’s Inaugural address, our Forty-Sixth President intoned themes reminiscent of the Sixteenth President’s first inaugural address, but without the lofty rhetoric. Also missing from his speech were the nifty catch phrases of an FDR (“The only thing we have to fear….”), or a JFK (“Ask not….”). If you were looking for the cadences and word play of a preacher like MLK, you would have been disappointed. In place of these was a speech given by a humble man who stuttered several times. This man, once upon a time, was the youngest US Senator, and self-admittedly, the most haughty. On January 20, 2021, the march of the years had stripped him of both. A broken man spoke to a broken nation. A resilient man called out to a nation longing for resilience. The man, himself, was spare and sparse. Like Bruce’s Tom Joad tour, the beauty and the power of President Biden’s speech were in the authenticity and simplicity. Like Springsteen in that 1996 concert, Joe
Biden, and his message were the same thing. His stripped-down, spare message: to solve our nation’s once-in-a-century problems, we simply must figure out how to come together. In a word, the work he called our
nation to is the work of…unity.
As a counselor who regularly works on this project with marriages, families, and organizations, let me just say that what sounds so simple, and maybe even soft, is neither of those things. Dostoyevsky once famously observed that words like “unity,” or “love” might sound easy, even romantic, but “in action” they are “harsh and dreadful [things]” (from: The Brothers Karamazov). Unity requires a disciplined commitment to an array of formidable skills. Rather than providing that list, I would like to point to perhaps the most foundational of all the skills necessary for any meaningful coming together. I believe that Thomas Merton did a nice job articulating it in the following excerpt
We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.(From: Seeds of Contemplation)
Merton provides you and me an important first step in heeding our President’s call to unity. Could you leave a little space this week to contemplate how you might embrace your humanness? What would it look like to accept your broken nature, and therefore, grow your capacity for compassion? What actions do you imagine would flow from a whole hearted commitment to this approach?