How can we heal when we fail our ideals?

Gnarled Apple Tree DSC01742During the time when I was struggling with our failure to truly live our ideals, I read the novel, March, by Geraldine Brooks. The story is centered on the absent father figure, Mr. March, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and draws on the actual life story of her father, Bronson Alcott. Mr. March has gone off to be a chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War. He is passionately opposed to slavery. The whole family has been involved in the underground railroad, and Mr. March had lost most of his fortune supporting the work of abolitionists. So it seems unconscionable not also to support the military effort to free the slaves. He is following his highest ideals.

But Mr. March’s actual experience as a chaplain in the war proves profoundly disillusioning. The Union soldiers, his heroes, are often cruel to each other and to the former slaves who seek refuge. Many battles are ill-planned and disastrous, with horrific loss of life and injury and disease. Finding himself in a deadly situation, he lacks the courage to give up his own life to save the life of one of the slaves he has been teaching to read. When he tries to follow the abductors and help to save the other captured slaves, the mission ultimately fails, despite his efforts. Eventually, he succumbs to fever and is sent to a Union hospital, a broken and despairing man.

How do any of us heal from the despair that evil or failure can bring to our hearts? Sometimes we try to isolate ourselves from what is broken—to separate the good from the bad. For our ecological values, this might mean we decide to build our own zero-carbon home off the grid, grow all our own food, and stop participating in the larger society. In some religious traditions, it takes the form of identifying sinners and banishing them from the community of the holy. For others, it may be more subtle: we may be tempted to connect only with people with whom we agree, who share our values and ideals, and stop relating to those who seem to us, “unenlightened.” We imagine ourselves on the right side of a very great conflict.

But it is not so simple as that. Mr. March found that the people on the “right” side of the civil war were also broken, that he himself failed to live up to his own high ideals. How can we heal from the wounds of self-betrayal?

Near the end of the Civil War, after securing the freedom of the slaves, Abraham Lincoln reached out to the whole nation, north and south, to try to bring people back together into one community. His second inaugural address closed with these words for healing:

With malice toward none; with charity for all;
with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,
let us strive on to finish the work we are in;
to bind up the nation’s wounds;
to care for him who shall have borne the battle,
and for his widow and his orphan…
to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace
among ourselves and with all nations.

Our brokenness tears us apart, but our healing must bring all of us together. Mr. March slowly finds his healing through the love of the people who care for him, just as he is. Marmee comes to him at the military hospital, and eventually he returns to his family, chastened, fragile, not whole yet, but able to be united to those familiar little women, his daughters.

Did the nation take to heart Lincoln’s words? A short time later, he was assassinated. Perhaps we are still living with the brokenness in our nation that erupted in the civil war. The divides between black and white, between south and north, between liberal and conservative, between rich and poor, still undermine our capacity to live up to our country’s ideals. I don’t have an answer to fix it.

But I believe that all people and all beings are connected, that the earth is a whole. That belief shapes how I can imagine a way forward. The way forward is always rooted in forgiveness. Forgiveness for the failures we see all around us, the ways that others betray the ideals we hold dear, and hurt and wound each other. And forgiveness for our selves, when we too are unable to live up to our values and ideals, which happens almost every day. Only when we can forgive, can we return to the dreams we hold, can we find wholeness, and receive a new start.

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