Reminding Us Who We Are

Last week I wrote about The Need For Ritual in our society. Now the inimitable Peggy Noonan devoted her weekly column to the same topic after observing New Year's Eve and the Gerald Ford funeral.

I cannot begin to approach the beauty of Ms. Noonan's words, so I will quote her at length:

Why do they mass in Times Square and count the New Year in? There are no symposiums on this question, but I believe the answer is: to gather and mark something big beginning, to share a sense of expectation. If you had a bad year, it's over, change is on the way--"Five, four, three, two"--and if you had a good year you're on a roll--"one!"

They do it to start out on the right foot, with a cheer.

It's not just an event, it's a ceremony.

A few days later, the great state funeral of Gerald Ford. I didn't plan to watch it, but every time I saw it I couldn't stop. Why do we do this, dust off the pomp and circumstance and haul out the ruffles and flourishes? It's not only to mark a death, even of so respected and highly charged a figure as a former president. Why do network television chiefs and newspaper editors decide not to leave the story until it's over, even when from day one it seems stale?

Because it's not stale. We're renewing.

The Marines snap their salutes and bear the flag-draped coffin up the marble steps and we hear the old hymns--"Going Home," "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," "The Navy Hymn": "Oh hear us when we cry to thee / For those in peril on the sea." We don't hear these songs much in modern life, only at formal occasions like this. We lock them in a closet until a state funeral, and then they come out and we realize how much they meant, and how much we miss them.

The ministers speak of God's grace and ask him to welcome his humble servant home. Which suggests, and in a formal state occasion, that there is a God, a home, a soul. The eulogists speak of the wonders of the human personality, and of a specific and particular life in the long continuum. They praised Ford's honesty, his modesty, his patience. They said he always put himself second. They said he loved his country. In doing so they reminded us that effort is rewarded, patriotism is praised.

We do all this to remind ourselves who we are. We do it to remind ourselves what we honor, and what we believe, as a nation and a people. We do it to remind ourselves that America yields greatness, that here a seemingly average man raised in decidedly average circumstances can become someone whose passing deserves four days of a great nation's praise.

Praising these things reminds the old of what it is we should be aiming for each day, and instructs the young on the elements of a life well lived.

We do it to make the picture broader for a moment, and free ourselves of our cynicism. And we do it finally to enact what so many feel and rarely say, not only because it's corny but because if you mean it, it's beyond words. MORE

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