E Pluribus Unum

imgresOn July 4, 1776, our first Independence Day, one of the first acts of the Continental Congress was to pass a resolution authorizing a committee to research and devise a National Motto, as well as a seal for the new Nation. The task of coming up with the motto and designing the seal was given to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.

Two months later, on, September 9, 1776, Congress gave the new Nation a name – the United States of America. The honor of naming our country belongs to Thomas Paine, who has since been called America’s Godfather.

During that same meeting, Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams reported the recommendations of their committee. They recommended “E Pluribus Unum” for a national motto – “From the Many One.” If you look on the back of a dollar bill, you will note the American bald eagle is the most prominent feature on what is the front of the Great Seal of the United States. In its beak the eagle grasps a flowing ribbon bearing that motto.

The motto reminds us that out of many states – and many different people – one nation was born. The thirteen colonies had banded together to fight a common enemy, but they had always had a separate existence.

At the birth of our nation, the concern for unity was strong enough that Benjamin Franklin felt obliged to comment on it before signing the Declaration of Independence. “We must, indeed, all hang together,” Franklin said, “or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Many years before, John Winthrop, the visionary leader of the Puritans, recognized the challenge of unifying people with no common history, customs, traditions, or previous connection. In a speech to his fellow Puritan colonists in 1630, Winthrop defined his vision of the society he hoped to establish in the new world.

“All true Christians are of one body in Christ,” he said; “the ligaments of this body which knit together are love. All parts of the body being thus united…in a special relation as they partake of each others’ strength and infirmity, joy, and sorrow…If one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one be in honor, all rejoice in it.”

“We must be knit together in this work as one man,” he warned.  “We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities…For we must consider that we shall be as a City on a Hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us.”

This is a large part of what makes the United States unique in the history of the world. America is the only nation composed of people drawn from another place. It is the only nation whose people are not connected by blood, race, culture, or original language. De Tocqueville and every observer since his time has wondered how such a union could be maintained.

Fortunately, the assembly that was given the task of structuring our national unity contained some of the finest minds and arguably the noblest characters to have ever appeared in the New World. Fortunately, the assembly had George Washington as its President.

The documents they developed – the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – defined the structure of our government, our citizens’ relationship to their government, and our relationship to each other. As Americans, we are asked to balance our individual interests with the common good, our ambition with compassion, enterprise with responsibility, liberty with spirituality.

Despite the obvious success of their initial efforts, the founders of our nation continued to express concern for our unity. “The unity of government, which constitutes you one people,” George Washington said in his farewell address, “is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence…and that very liberty, which you so highly prize.”

At his inauguration after a bitter and partisan election, Jefferson said, “Let us, then, fellow citizens unite with one heart and mind.” Playing the peacemaker, he reminded the contending forces that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Shortly after the civil war, when the strength of the union was sorely tested, a Boston magazine called the Youth’s Companion created and published a twenty-two word recitation for school children to use to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Understandably, the issue of unity was very much on their minds. What they created was the earliest version of what we now know as the Pledge of Allegiance.

The pledge they developed has been revised several times through the years and was not adopted officially until 1942. It was revised again in l954 when the words “under God” were added; but the focus of the Pledge in every version from the first to the last has been the request to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and what it represents: one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Concerns for national unity remained well into the 20th Century. President Eisenhower’s second inaugural address included the hope that we “may we know unity without conformity.”  President Kennedy in his inaugural address reminded us that “United, there is little we cannot do…Divided, there is little we can do.”  President Johnson followed suit, saying, “We are one nation and one people. Our fate as a nation and our future as people rests not upon one citizen, but all citizens.”

America is a rag-tag nation, built from the flotsam and jetsam, the scraps and misfits of the world.  At times the pieces don’t seem to fit and our individual interests, our determined pursuit of success and happiness, seems to overwhelm our sense of community. But when we are tested, as we were on September 11, 2001, at Pearl Harbor, and during the Civil War, the spirit of America rises and there can be no doubt we are one people, crying with one voice: United we stand!

At times like these, we are reminded that our true interest is a mutual interest. The doctrines that would divide us, the people that would separate us, those who put race against race, religion against religion, class against class, and worker against employer are false and doomed to fail.

Everyone is needed.  Everyone can contribute.  Individually, we may only have a small piece of the puzzle but each of us has at least one piece and every piece is essential.  This is where community begins.

Community comes when people see hope where there is fear and decide to join hands, linking themselves with others in a common cause.  Community comes when people decide not to ignore a problem or run away, but to reinforce each other and take on apathy and despair.  Community comes when we realize selfishness is at the root of all moral evils; selflessness is the goal of human existence.

The path to liberty cannot be taken until we recognize the fundamental fact that serving others is our common duty and birthright.  An individual has not started living until he or she can rise above the narrow confines of their personal interests to the broader concerns of humanity.  A nation cannot survive separate and apart.

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Happy Easter

IMG_0080I was slow to marry. From an early age, my parents had told me to choose the person I would marry carefully. They said it was likely to be the most important decision I ever made and I took their advice to heart.

I was well into my forties before I found the girl who was to become my wife but she was definitely worth waiting for. The only downside was that by the time I found her both my parents had passed away. I often wish they had a chance to meet her and welcome her into our family.

Two years into our marriage, my wife surprised me with a portrait of my parents by the noted artist Simi Knox. Working from photographs my wife provided, Mr. Knox managed to capture their likeness as vividly as if they had been there to sit for the portrait. It was one of the best Christmas presents I have ever received.

This portrait has had a place of honor and prominence in every home we have owned. Our son, Will, born four years later, has grown up with it. It was always somewhere he could see it, making it easy for me to talk about them and try to describe who they were.

One morning when he was about four or five, Will surprised me by  turning away from the television and looking hard at the portrait above the sofa where we were sitting.

He said, “You know, I knew your mother before I knew you.”

His comment seemed to come out of nowhere. It caught me by surprise.

“What do you mean”? I asked.

“We used to play together in heaven,” Will said, “before she picked me out for you.”

Tears flowed. Tears flow even now as I remember what he said and think of the implications.

Happy Easter!

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What Do You Stand For?

imgresSenator Frank E. Moss brought me to Washington. He was the last Democrat elected to the Senate from Utah, serving from l959 to l977.

Moss was a liberal in the most conservative state in the union.  So when he announced his intention to run for the Senate he wasn’t given much of a chance. Even after he easily won his party’s nomination, no one took him seriously. The Democrats’ Senatorial Campaign Committee was quick to write him off as a long shot. They saw no point in supporting his effort.

But Moss was resolute. He organized a grass roots campaign, making his case door–to–door, community by community, across the state. And, to everyone’s surprise, as the election approached Moss’ determination began to pay off. He closed the gap to the point where polls showed him within the margin of error.

At that point even his biggest doubters began to realize he might win and the DNC decided they had better reconsider. The possibility of capturing a seat in Utah was too tempting to resist. They dispatched representatives of their Senatorial Campaign Committee to offer their support.

They met Moss at the hotel where they were staying in Salt Lake City. They congratulated him on the quality of his campaign and told him they were prepared to give him whatever he would need for the media buys that would push him over the top and assure his success.

But they said there was one condition.

They said the money would come through Senator Long from the oil lobby. Moss had to promise that if he was elected they could have his vote any time they needed it.

Moss said, “No.”  He refused their support and decided to stand on his own.

Moss’ meeting with the DNC was never publicized but everyone knew what had happened by the time he arrived in Washington to be sworn in.  It earned him the respect of his colleagues and a reputation for integrity.

I can’t help wondering what he would think of the current crop of  Presidential candidates and their campaigns, the bitterness and bickering, and the charges of “liar, liar” flying back and forth.

My guess is he would say, “If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing.”

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Hell

imagesWhat does hell look like?

Is it fiery and hot or dark and cold? Does it exist at all outside of our minds?

I visited hell in 1992. It was in an AIDS ward in an LA hospital. There I met a young black woman, clinging to life but already in purgatory.

She was in a gray place, neither dark nor light, hot nor cold, caught in transition between the best and worst of her life.  She was tormented by the demons of her past – years on the street and a dependence on drugs – but sustained by love.

The staff attending her was literally counting the days.  Most were surprised she had held on so long.  What kept her alive, I was told, was her fierce determination to make sure her six-year old daughter was taken care of after she was gone.

The word “hell” comes from the old English. Literally, it means “to separate” or “to build a wall around.” To be “helled” was to be shut off from.

All who love can relate to the torment this woman felt at the thought of being separated from the one she loved most deeply. It was truly Hell.

“Diabolic” comes from a word meaning “to divide.” Diabolic forces separate us from each other and God. In our lives they find expression in ego, anger, pride, nationalism, racism, envy, ignorance, and greed. These are the forces of darkness.

With the affluence of our society and the increasing polarization of resources, separating ourselves from others becomes easier and at times seems almost inevitable.  Increasingly, we are tempted to create boundaries of geography, blood, and race.  It is not difficult to become convinced of our preciousness, independence, and self-sufficiency.   It is not difficult to fell threatened by those who look or seem different.

But we cannot close others out without shutting ourselves in. When we do this we walk willingly into a prison of our own making.  The walls we put up for our protection serve only to isolate us, leaving us lonely and alone.

By contrast, “heaven” means “harmony.” If demonic forces divide, love unites.

Heaven on earth will not be possible until we are able to get beyond the superficial elements that divide us and realize that the only thing that separates us from each other and God is the belief that we are separate.

That’s where Hell is.  And it is now, not then.

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Bingo

images-1I never thought I would be grateful for bingo.

My wife had just graduated from college and started her first job when her mother had a brain aneurysm.   She quit work and spent the next two years tending to her mother’s needs and seeing to her rehabilitation.

Once her mother stabilized and it became clear she would never fully recover, my wife assumed the responsibility of hiring, training, and supervising the aides and attendants necessary to support her mother, as well as, providing food and shelter. When we married, we carried on together until her mom’s caretaking became more than we could handle at home. Reluctantly, we decided to place her in a nursing home.

This was a difficult decision for all of us. My wife took our inability to continue caring for her mother as something of a personal failure. For me, the decision resurrected a lot of painful memories of nursing homes I had investigated for the U. S. Senate. After that experience, I swore I would never put a family member in a nursing home.

We knew it was the last place her mother wanted to be; but, happily, she settled in quickly. While there were indeed some unpleasant aspects to the transition, there were also some pleasant surprises.

Chief among these is the joy she takes in playing Bingo. Bingo sessions are organized twice a week. She always goes and, judging from her accounts, always wins.

I thought the pleasure she took in this was obvious and superficial until the first Christmas approached. Then on one of our visits, she asked my wife to pull a box out from under the bed. When we opened the box we found a strange assortment of things inside – a book, jewelry, toys, and toiletries.

Her mom explained she had purchased these things with the points she had won playing bingo.   With obvious pleasure, she said they were Christmas gifts she wanted us to wrap for her.

After years of being taken care of and continually being on the receiving end, she had finally found a way to give. Nothing I have ever experienced spoke more eloquently to the depth of this need than her excitement as she told us who each gift was for.

Being able to give is one of the great privileges in life. In fact, the ability to give can be said to define human development. If you think about it, infancy is a time of total dependence. Everything has to be given to us. The transition to adolescence begins when we start to become independent and learn to take care of ourselves. The mark of maturity is when we begin to care for others.

 

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