This is a post I intended to write many months ago– it was on a list of planned topics I sent to someone in November, with the parenthetical comment: non-political! That I finally got to writing it Inauguration weekend is a chance irony. But wow, what a weekend that was.
Joe Biden. Back in fall 2008, when Obama had announced his running mate, someone whose opinion I generally respect was fairly disgusted with the choice. “We have so many viable candidates,” he moaned, “Why pick someone who’s always making gaffes, tripping over his words– don’t we have plenty of people who can string a decent sentence together?” I too had been a little surprised at the choice, having expected something more out of the box (like, less male, less white). But I knew Biden’s back story, and he was already a man of grace in my book. So I just said, “Oh, Joe Biden, he’s ok.”
He sure is. He might not always be the smoothest operator, but how can you not see him as a sort of hero, one touched by mind-numbing, heartbreaking tragedy, and grace?
He bore the most unbearable losses publicly, not shirking the emotion, humble in the face of it, and he got back up. Not mournfully but with joy. You can see the sadness in his eyes, I think, it informs but rarely takes over the moment at hand.
For those unfamiliar with his story…in 1972 Biden was elected to the US Senate at the extremely young age of 29– he would turn 30 end of November, the age you must be to assume office; a week before Christmas his wife and one-year-old daughter were killed in a car accident while out shopping for a Christmas tree; his two young sons survived the crash. He intended to resign his Senate seat, but received so much support and encouragement he held on. Thus began the daily Amtrak commute from Washington D.C. back to Delaware to be with his sons. The elder of those sons, Joe III and known as Beau, would grow up to serve in the army, including in Iraq, be elected Attorney General of Delaware and considered a frontrunner for governor. He died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.
Winter 1988, a few months after he withdrew from the presidential campaign having been accused of plagiarism, including of a British Labour Party candidate’s speech (seems so tame by today’s standards) Joe Jr. suffered a series of brain aneurisms that nearly killed him. You get the idea.
Biden always owned the mishaps and misspeaks, even instances when others like aides were at fault. And though as a politician he is honor-bound to talk the talk, and he sure does, he always struck me as someone who was also really, truly walking the walk. The famed Amtrak commute, his devotion to his family, including his awesome second wife, his devotion to his country, the whole thing, this guy just screamed real deal.
A friend posted a link to these short videos about him, beginning with a brief biography. The world breaks everyone, he says. I’ve been made strong. I love the scene with Obama and the Ray-Bans, classic Joe. That blinding smile, that self-deprecating humor. You would think he’s a macho dude from some of the running Onion gags (The Onion so loves Biden they came out with a faux autobiography, available as an e-book on Amazon, The President of Vice: The Autobiography of Joe Biden) but no– watch through the next clip showing Biden receiving the Medal of Freedom, turning away to collect himself before the medal is draped around his neck.
Not to wade off into the thick of the current political situation, being as I’ve assiduously stayed so alooooof thus far, but I think safe to say, there are a different set of characters now inhabiting the top spots. That scene with Obama, Biden and the Ray-Bans, imagine it with Trump, Pence, and whatever the equivalent eyewear might be. I dunno, not sure I see any self-deprecating humor there. If there’s a problem with the new administration, and Lord knows lots of people are saying there are only problems with the new administration, maybe that’s a part of it. Maybe these guys just take themselves too seriously. I know, not what most of you were thinking as a potential key issue. But think about it.
Harry Smith did a piece on the presidential transition following Inauguration Day on NBC’s Sunday Today. There’s a cut from a Lester Holt interview, with an army veteran who supported Hillary Clinton. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she speaks calmly about the division between camps. A lot of Hillary supporters, she says, use the hashtag #notmypresident. “He will be my president, and I want him to succeed, because if he fails, we fail.”
Comity, Harry Smith tells us, is an out-of-use word that conveys the also out-of-use idea that we work together toward a common purpose, a common good. Comity, com-i-ty, 1) an association of nations for their mutual benefit 2) courtesy and considerate behavior toward others. No wonder we don’t hear it used much anymore.
The Coldplay song “I Will Fix You,” a ballad-anthem, has been running through my head lately.
When you try your best but you don’t succeed
When you get what you want but not what you need
When you feel so tired but you can’t sleep
Stuck in reverse…
Tears stream down your face
When you lose something you cannot replace
Tears come streaming down your face
Tears stream down your face
I promise you I will learn from all my mistakes
Tears stream down your face
Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you
Most of us probably don’t deserve the way the world breaks us, and we sure can’t choose the where, when and how when it does. But we can choose our response. It’s not what happens to you, as the Stoic Epictetus said, but how you react to it that matters. Biden has spoken about his reaction after the accident that took his wife and daughter; he was full of rage, his religious faith was splintered, and at times he would wander edgy neighborhoods just looking for a fight. But he never curled up in a ball and withdrew.
So you get up every morning and you put one foot in front of the other. In the Stoic sense, you choose to be tranquil, not roiled by events; to not simply endure, but transcend. Above all, you are grateful, because in gratitude lies the grace of looking outward, of fully seeing and being in the moment.
In the cult of the happy, it is all about: what makes you happy? It begins with the me, and I think a need for control over all the big and small details in order to ferret out anything that detracts from that all-desired emotion. Sort of an emotional version of Oprah’s favorite things. The Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast reminds us, it isn’t happiness that makes us grateful, it is gratefulness that makes us happy.
I think Biden is a man touched by grace and practiced in the art of gratitude. He got out of bed and put one foot in front of the other a bunch of times when most of us would have been debilitated and doubled over by grief. And that’s not to say he suppressed his grief, on the contrary. To watch his face as Beau’s casket is carried past him by an honor guard is a study in just about the worst kind of grief a parent, a human being, can experience, that of losing a child. And to think this was a child who survived the crash forty years earlier that took another child– any of us might be forgiven breaking down and raging for the rest of our days.
Take your broken heart, make it into art, Carrie Fisher said. Let the wracking pain propel you into new stratospheres of feeling, of being. As I wrote in the last post, surely it is the fissures and cracks of our vulnerability that allow us to love harder and deeper. If we don’t stay put in the pain and slip into bitterness, the payoff is huge. No one would ever choose it, but therein lies the path to a kind of depth and growth that I don’t think is accessible any other way. Live the pain, then transcend it to find huge pools of creativity, and love, have appeared in the desert.
So here’s to Joe Biden, his transcendent grace, his service, his humor. Thanks, Diamond Joe, for the levity, the decency, and the dignity.