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Abraham Lincoln and me

I remember the night of Nov. 19, 1963, as if it were yesterday. I had already developed a peculiar, some might say obsessional, bond with Abraham Lincoln by then, partly because the  grandfather I idolized worshipped him, and partly of my own accord. But that night was special. It was the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. As I lay in bed, fighting back tears, all I could think of was this:How could anyone have committed an act so cruel, so unaccountably senseless, as killing this good and great man? How could something so evil have occurred?

Three days later I was walking in the hallways near my eighth-grade class when it was announced that shots had been fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas. Soon we learned that he had been killed. We were sent home. Tears finally flowed. This had not happened a century ago to someone I had read about, but that very same day to someone I felt I knew.

In the 58 years that have passed, I have often reflected on that period of a few days in my young life. I realize that these deaths had an outsized impact on me and still do. My emotional connection with Lincoln has only deepened. As strange as it may sound, Abraham Lincoln has been one of the most important people in my life. I have outgrown a youthful tendency to hero-worship, but I admit that I think of Lincoln in mythological terms. If people choose to focus on the fact that he shared some of the toxic racial attitudes of his time, and remove his name from schools and tear down statues of him, they are perfectly free to do so. But to lump him in with slave owners and Confederate generals is not only unfair, but to judge him by today's standards and overlook his greatness. It is what an historian friend of mine calls presentism – judging someone from the past by present-day standards.

What is it about Abraham Lincoln that has had such a massive impact on me in the nearly 213 years since his birth on Feb. 12, 1809? Why, for decade after decade, since childhood, have I tried — unsuccessfully, I admit — to induce a dream that I am having dinner with him, getting a sense for the man as a real person, talking with him about his life? Is it for the usual reasons — his incredible moral sense, his masterful use of language, his towering intellect, his humor, his political genius, his perseverance in the face of tragedy, his kindness, his humility?

Of course, I treasure all of the manifold aspects of Lincoln's character and personality as do so many others, but these past few years have brought into focus why I continue to gain such inspiration from him. It is because Lincoln renews my faith and my sense of hope when observing so much demagoguery and cruel, self-aggrandizing conduct, that one good person with a sharp moral sense can bend the arc of history and make the world a better place. Make no mistake about it; our country has entered a perilous and challenging time. But studying Lincoln's life gives me faith and hope that good men and women can make a difference.

Lincoln's life proves to me that at key points in history, good people can rise to the occasion, bend the moral arc of history, and stand up for what is right. His life demonstrates that there are men and women who have the moral character to do what is right not because it aggrandizes them, but simply because it is right. His example reminds me that one brave person, who seeks power not for its own sake but to make the world a better place, can articulate and achieve lofty goals even in dangerous and confusing  times.

There are many false prophets, up and down the political spectrum, pedaling toxic lies and gaining the affections of deluded, desperate people who idolize them, but once in a great while, a person like Lincoln comes along to embody true decency and leadership. Is there someone out there, as of yet unrecognized, who will answer history's call if our fragile Republic is pounded by potentially lethal threats in upcoming years? Could such a person be in plain sight?

I have figured out why Lincoln's example speaks to me, this year, more directly and personally than ever before. His life no longer registers as that of a person dead for 155 years. His example lives within me today, renewing my hope and my faith in our country's future.

Now, if he will only join me for that long-hoped for dinner, my childhood dream will finally be realized.

Douglas S. Lavine has been a judge in Connecticut for 28 years. He lives in West Hartford.

 

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