We have a tendency these days to travel quickly from one place to another. Planes are often our preferred mode of transportation. There are obvious benefits to leaving Houston in the morning and enjoying dinner in San Francisco. Making our way across long distances by car takes so much longer and requires a certain amount of patience. Still there is something far more intimate about a road trip. It allows us to begin to truly understand the geography and the people of our country. We get a better sense of the grandness of this nation and the hard working spirit that keeps it moving from day to day.
Mike and I traveled a bit over four thousand six hundred miles in the past two weeks. Our route took us straight through the heart of America and gave us an up close view of the contrasts that are somehow held together by a vague certainty that ours is indeed one of the best places to live on our sometimes fragile earth. We saw skyscrapers in Chicago and quaint farms in the Amish town of Napannee. We visited the Boilermakers of Purdue University and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Along the way we witnessed Americans working hard to live in the ways of their own choosing, Andrew studying engineering and Uncle Sam bringing smiles with his mimes. We enjoyed the raucous streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans and reflected in the quiet battlefield of Shiloh. We marveled at cypress forests and spent fields of corn. Everywhere that we went the people that we encountered were friendly and kind. Somehow even in our differences we knew that we were all alike.
Driving for miles and miles, hours and hours is often a contemplative pursuit. The mind slows down when there is little to do but relax. It becomes easier to consider the burning questions that we often set aside in the rush of a normal routine. Entrapment in a car provides a kind of ironic freedom to the soul. It’s amazing how clear things become when an open highway allows an almost infinite view of the world. The forced isolation and the hum of the wheels rolling ever forward creates a fertile environment for thinking.
Ours was a two week journey into the past and the future. I learned more about my ancestors by walking in the lands that they once inhabited. They came alive for me in ways that drew me closer to them than I had ever before been. I saw the earnest faces of the next generation in my grandson and his fellow students. I realized the meaning of lives that might otherwise have seemed simple and inconsequential, including my own. All along the way the visit of Pope Francis to the United States served as a spiritual backdrop to my own less illustrious but quite meaningful travels.
I saw the land that the Pope has admonished us to protect. The fields and the rivers were as magnificent as the most picturesque mountains. They were teeming with life and promise for all of us. I marveled at the sweat and toil that brought forth the corn, barley, soybeans, and cotton crops that sprouted from the varying shades of earth. We depend on the continued success of the farmers for our very existence. We have to honor their work by doing our own parts to make certain that we always consider the sacredness of the land. In the profoundest ways each of our actions contributes either to the care or the destruction of our world. Somehow my birds’ eye view made me ever more aware of the need for all of us to be stewards of the environment.
I thought of my own ancestors moving from one place to another until they found a final destination where they might enjoy their lives in relative peace. After learning of the hell of Shiloh and imagining the four years of war that my great grandfather endured I found it quite natural that he would have spent the remaining years in an isolated homestead where the cares and woes of war might not intrude. I thought again of the Pope’s insistence that we must always consider the needs of the poor, the suffering, the unfortunate. There is certainly a limit to what we as a nation might do but we must determine ways to be as kind and open and generous as we have so often been to those who struggle throughout the world. Paying our own blessings forward is the least that we might do. Working together and without derision is a must.
We Americans have made mistakes throughout our history. I doubt that my great grandparents were perfect. I know that their children and grandchildren were not. I struggle in my own way just as we all do. I attempt to keep jealousies and anger at bay. I sometimes see the half full glass and bemoan my fate. I worry as much as my grandmother ever did and I witness my granddaughter showing the same personality traits that are my own and that no doubt began long ago with the DNA of some ancient relative of whom I know little. Still our tendency as humans is to work toward a more perfect version of ourselves. We often achieve closer and closer approximations of saintly traits but rarely manage to do so without experiencing failure and frustration. Nonetheless our tendency is to want to find that state of nirvana or utopia or heaven or whatever we wish to call it. It’s what we humans do.
If I were to name the one thing that I love the most about Christianity and in particular the Catholic Church it is the concept of forgiveness. I remember a time when I stewed over my own transgressions to the point where I confessed my sins over and over again. My confessor finally told me that the only way to progress is to express true contrition and then move on. He insisted that there is no point in wearing a hair shirt forever. We must believe that God forgives us when we ask Him and that He wants us to forgive ourselves.
Of late we have had a tendency as a nation to focus only on the sins of our fathers. I think that the message from the Pope was that it is time for all of us to move on. I saw firsthand on my trip that we are a nation of good well meaning individuals. The wheels of our industry and generosity are always churning. Sometimes we are so busy that we neglect ourselves and those around us. A long journey like mine opens the mind and the heart. It is difficult to despise differences when the evidence shows how wonderful they actually are. We are comprised of a group of individual but united states, each a bit like and unlike the others. We were built from the sweat and blood and dreams and even mistakes of those who came before us. Our legacy like all human history has both glorious and flawed moments. From day to day to day we toil in the quest for the kind of peace that my great grandfather may have finally found on a forested mountain in Arkansas.
What I mostly learned in the past two weeks is just how important it is to embrace and love the people that we encounter inside our homes, on our street, at work, wherever we may go. Take the time each day to show your love even to those who don’t seem to deserve it. That is how we move forward. That is how we move on.