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February 28, 2014

NOTES FROM THE JOURNEY: Living words upon our hearts

By JOHN PAUL CARTER

As the primary elections approach, I feel like I’m awash in endless, irrational political rhetoric and have turned a deaf-ear to it all. In contrast, as I celebrated Presidents’ Day last week, the poetry of Emily Dickinson reminded me of the staying power of our nation’s most important words:

A word is dead

When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.

Indeed, in 1776, Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence were just beginning to live: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Almost a century later on the battlefield at Gettysburg, as the Civil War drew to a close, Abraham Lincoln rededicated the nation to that “proposition that all men were created equal.” He called for “a new birth of freedom … that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

In spite of the struggle that almost tore the nation apart, the words were still alive.

In the years that have followed the idea that every person is created equal has been reborn many times – and not without great agony. Today the words are very much alive, but we remain a work in progress – we still have miles to go before those words become a reality for all our people.

An old Jewish Hasidic tale tells about a pupil who asked his rabbi, “Why does the Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rabbi answered, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks open and the words fall in.”

So we must keep these words on our hearts: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – until the dream becomes a reality for all our people.

John Paul Carter’s “Notes From the Journey” is a regular feature of Viewpoints.

 

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