On Tuesday evening as the nation’s COVID death toll passed 400,000, a man who knows grief too well told the nation why we needed to pause and reflect.
To heal we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember. But that’s how we heal.
Joe Biden, on the eve of assuming the presidency, offered that profound truth. A man who lost his wife and daughter in a car accident just days before a Christmas, and then later a son to brain cancer. Biden knows about pain. And healing. And remembering.
Throughout the recent campaign, he regularly paid tribute to those he lost, especially his son, Beau. Often he seemed on the verge of tears. That loss seemed to drive his campaign’s focus on the character trait of empathy. And regardless of your politics or who you voted for, I think we can agree that we need more empathy in our nation.
So, before celebrating his own inauguration, he called us to lament, to remember.
If we move on without healing, infection sets in. Whether it be in our own bodies or the body politic, an untreated wound can cause greater pain. Gangrene can set in. Or an unhealed nation looks to punish those ‘other’ people for the pain, which is the message Hitler used in the aftermath of the German humiliation of the first world war.
If we must remember as the way to heal, then not remembering — or misremembering — blocks healing.
One of the things God kept telling the ancient Hebrew people to remember was that they had been enslaved in Egypt. Remembering this would help them heal and, in turn, help heal the world. Remembering they had been enslaved was to impact the way they treated others.
But when they forgot, dangerous infections set in. The monarchy arose because the people forgot their King who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt. And then the monarchy brought more pain, grief, and enslavement. King Solomon even used enslaved people to build a temple to the God who brought people out of slavery! By not remembering, the people not only didn’t heal but also infected others.
Our nation turns a page today in many ways, but our nation also needs to turn many more pages. And we won’t write that story well unless we remember the past.
As the Avett Brothers remind us in their 2020 song “We Americans,” this is “a place built on stolen land with stolen people.” And we need to remember that before we can heal.
“The story’s complicated and hard to read, pages of the book obscured or torn out completely,” the song adds. “But the path of grace and good will is still here for those of us who may be considered among the living.”
Slavery, broken treaties, racial injustices, COVID, political deceit, corruption, and so much more might make us want to forget it all. Or worse, to tell ourselves a fake version of the past and present that makes us feel good even if it’s not really true.
But our nation needs healing. And that means it needs truth-tellers who help us remember. May we rise to that holy work.
Brian Kaylor is editor & president of Word&Way.