Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Pain Which Cannot Forget"

The past week was marked by remembrances of JFK on the 50th anniversary of his murder. The historian in me can't help but take some satisfaction with the impulse to re-visit the past. Nonetheless, all week long the coverage produced in me a nagging unease, whose source I could not pin down.

On the day itself, it came to me. At least in the coverage I saw, heard, and read, it seemed there was an awful lot of re-living, but precious little reflection.

Over and over, people who were in Dallas and who played some role--reporters who covered the story, the Secret Service agent who jumped onto the president's car, doctors at the hospital, people lining the motorcade route--all re-told their stories. Average people repeated where they were when they heard the terrible news. Perhaps because at that time I was alive but not yet aware, these stories seemed, ultimately, somewhat unsatisfactory.

I think my inner historian was waiting for someone to seriously reflect and not simply remember. The closest most accounts ever got to reflection was trotting out the tired, cliched remark that America lost its "innocence" that day. How a nation that had lived through the Civil War, or more recently the Great Depression and World War II, could be described as "innocent" escapes me.

Reflection is more than remembering and re-living. It involves a search for meaning and perspective. What do we do with those memories, how do we process them, and how are we different when we re-emerge from that process?

A discussion with a friend and colleague on the anniversary for some reason triggered a memory not about JFK, but RFK and the speech he gave the night of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder four and a half years after his own brother had been gunned down. In that age before instant communication, Kennedy learned the news on his way to give a speech in Indianapolis, knowing that most if not all of the people gathered to hear him would be unaware of what happened.

The police feared a riot and advised Kennedy to cancel the speech. Instead, he insisted on going ahead with it. According to Evan Thomas' biography of RFK, the "police escort peeled off when he entered the ghetto." It's a remarkable speech, well worth watching in its entirety.

The reason it came to my mind is the way RFK takes his own pain at the death of his brother and uses it to try to assuage the pain and anger he knows his audience feels.

He quoted Aeschylus:

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

That RFK quoted that passage from Aeschylus is no accident. Thomas reports that, in his grief after his brother's murder, in his search for answers and meaning, RFK took the advice of Jacquelyn Kennedy and began reading the works of the ancient Greeks: "The saving grace for Kennedy was the exaltation Greeks found in suffering. 'In agony learn wisdom!' cries the herald in Aeschylus' Prometheus. The Greeks understood that 'injustice was the nature of things,' but that the awfulness of fate could be borne and redeemed through pain."

RFK reflected. He learned. He found wisdom. He adopted some humility to balance the brash, youthful arrogance for which he had become known. He became a better man.

By the time history assigned him that role to play on April 4, 1968, he had transformed himself in such a way that the casting was ideal. He converted his personal pain into comfort for others.

Perhaps that's something only individuals, and not nations, can do. But I can't help but wish that this past week's remembrances had revealed a nation that had reflected and learned. That had become more humble. That was better. Whose pain had led to wisdom through the awful grace of God.

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