Paul Wesslund

The Grand Humility of the Inauguration

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In an inaugural ceremony studded with different kinds of significance for each of us, the most notable moment for me came after the opening prayer when the president-elect grabbed Fr. Leo O’Donovan as he walked from the lectern.

Joe Biden and Fr. Leo O’Donovan

Biden’s famous of course for an almost maniacal need to make contact with people, including and especially physically. It’s even the stuff of Saturday Night Live skits.

Today it seemed a metaphor for our powerful need for kindness. For humility. For being human to each other. Just a few seconds earlier Fr. Donovan had quoted Pope Frances saying that we don’t build dreams alone, but together.

Antidote to anger

The inauguration felt like an antidote to a disease that’s been lingering many more than four years. We’ve learned to angrily stand up against people who offend us, or who are too far outside our club. And we’ve got the the worldwide social media platforms to broadcast our own personal brand to the world.

What Biden brings to us is a leader wearing his biography inside-out. He stuttered as a kid. He’s failed more than once as a presidential candidate. His son died, bringing with it a grief that kept him from running for office four years ago. It’s the suffering of a lot of us. Biden shows us we can face it. He shows us that sometimes we need a second chance. And how important it is to give a second chance.

Amanda Gorman dug deeper, opening up and exploring pain and compassion, reading her extraordinary poem The Hill We Climb. She sounded like she knew every one of us when she said, “quiet isn’t always peace.” 

Biden shows that we can even turn compassion into policy. He described how that connection translates to environmental action when he said that a “cry for survival comes from the planet itself.”

When I think about the compassion of this country I think about the cutouts at the ends of sidewalks—those dips in the cement that make it easier for wheelchairs to move around. They’re a sign that we care about every one of us. It’s the kind of thinking that created the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which Biden co-sponsored and, incidentally, was signed into law by a Republican president.

A new act of kindness

Biden grabbed the preacher as he walked away because he was paying attention to the person inside—seeing him. It’s the kind of paying attention Biden showed a few minutes later when he was thanking the former presidents attending the ceremony, pausing to recognize Jimmy Carter who couldn’t be there. It’s the kind of paying attention Rev. Silvester Beaman referred to in his benediction when he called on us to see “the lonely, the least, and the left-out… In discovering our humanity we will see the good in and for all our neighbors. We will love the unlovable, remove the stigma of the so-called untouchables.”

Garth Brooks signaled how it was a day not so much about grandeur, but reflection, singing,

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

I feel there’s reason to hope that the diverse leadership team that started work in Washington today is at least an attempt at the beginning of a government guided by a grand humility—one that accepts human failings and finds the strengths in them.

Watching the TV coverage through the afternoon one reporter marveled that she had just received the first COVID-19 test she’d ever had in the White House. What had been a political statement is now just an act of kindness.

Today’s inauguration can remind us that whether in the White House or your own house, compassion doesn’t have to wait.

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