Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lincoln's condolences... Anyway

Some years back I came across a copy of a letter signed by then President, Abraham Lincoln. It is a letter of condolence to a mother who Lincoln believed had lost five sons in the Civil War.

One of the most difficult situations I’ve encountered is finding something appropriate to say to someone in great distress, especially one who has been bereaved. Lincoln’s letter stands out as a model of care, compassion, and vulnerability. Read it and marvel:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
Dear Madam,--
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
A. Lincoln

As I was searching for a copy of this letter for this post, I discovered some irony.

"In the fall of 1864, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew wrote to President Lincoln asking him to express condolences to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widow who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. Lincoln's letter to her was printed by the Boston Evening Transcript. Later it was revealed that only two of Mrs. Bixby's five sons died in battle (Charles and Oliver). One deserted the army, one was honorably discharged, and another deserted or died a prisoner of war.

The authorship of the letter has been debated by scholars, some of whom believe it was written instead by John Hay, one of Lincoln's White House secretaries.

The original letter was destroyed by Mrs. Bixby, who was a Confederate sympathizer and disliked President Lincoln.

Copies of an early forgery have been circulating for many years, causing many people to believe they have the original letter."

Especially ironic to me was the fact that Mrs. Bixby rejected the offer of condolences: she destroyed the letter.

But that’s what I like about Lincoln and his example. He did the right thing, the noble thing, and left the consequences with another. Honest Abe was his nickname. He was caring and forthright, but that didn’t always fly.

What endured is not the rejection, but the act of kindness that was offered.

I’ll end this post with the words from a poem which hung on a wall in one of Mother Theresa’s missions, an orphanage in Calcutta:


People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind,
people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful,
you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank,
people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building,
someone could destroy overnight.
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness,
they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today,
people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have,
and it may never be enough;
Give the best you've got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis
it is between you and God;
it was never between you and them anyway.

A comment in another blog notes:

"This poem – Anyway – was not written by Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandella – all of whom have been credited with the writing of this poem. It was written by a young Harvard student in the late 1940’s, when he was a contributor to the campus newspaper. This fact was researched by Reader’s Digest – and the copy of the campus newspaper can still be accessed. At last report, the (now) old gentleman resides in Hawaii – where he’s seen his poem travel all around the world at least once a generation since he graduated. He would have been quite content to be its anonymous author, had a real journalist – one who actually checks facts and sources – not come along." (The poem was written by Kent M. Keith, a Harvard student, when he was 19.)

1 comment:

  1. Don!
    We alwasy want to "fix" things and make things better by what we say. You, being acquainted as you are with grief, know that this is something words cannot do in the face real loss.
    I think, because of your own experience, you sort of have the authority to say almost anything you want. It means something coming from you.
    The quote from the nineteen year old is amazing (coming from a nineteen year old), but sometimes kids can be petty perceptive and wise.