Abraham Lincoln used the word at Gettysburg. “It is for us the living to be here dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here so nobly advanced.”
Amanda Gorman, the youth poet laureate, used the same word on the steps of the Capitol, a century and a half later, on behalf of the very republic Lincoln and those soldiers at Gettysburg gave “their last full measure of devotion” to advance.
America, she said, “A nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”
I wonder if anything ever is finished? If we as nations or cultures are perpetually on the way toward some becoming, just as each of us as individuals are? There is some comfort, at least for me, in that possibility. It suggests that nothing—no quality of existence, individual or collective—is out of reach. It’s just a question of when we get there.
Lincoln wasn’t so sure all those years ago, or at least he went to great lengths to suggest the fragility not simply of the union but of the future. Equating the Nation to a living soul, “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
A proposition. A question. Democracy is a fragile idea. Lincoln knew it needed care, but he recognized in the country’s vulnerability, its salvation as well.
Amanda Gorman says much the same thing. She and Lincoln seem to know that our hope lies not in what we are in a given moment but in what we might be. “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union …” It is our intentions that are conspicuous in such language and conviction.
We will never actually be perfect, individually or collectively. Human history has revealed that fact all too clearly. But we can be closer to it perpetually. We can be better every day. That seems a worthy acknowledgement during a week in which we celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who lost his life because he refused to accept that we could not or should not be better; in which we saw the will of the American people honored in Washington and a new administration sworn into office despite efforts to prevent it, and when this deadly pandemic claimed its 400,000th domestic victim, and its 2,000,000th worldwide. Far from perfect. We are indeed unfinished, and there is much work ahead.
But that is our good fortune, what Ms. Gorman called “The Hill We Climb,” “For there is always light, if only we are brave enough to see it, if only we are brave enough to be it.”