Joe Biden set a tone yesterday evening to listen rather than speak, to speak through our silences. I will try to heed that as best I can with only some brief remarks as we rest at this threshold. Where do we go from here? What do we make of all this? A lesson for us to learn and absorb is resilience.
So many terrible things have happened over these four years, so many things were harrowing and unimaginable. Most became inevitable the moment the country took the fatal step of putting a sociopath at the helm of the state. We were here four years ago trying to imagine what would happen. Resilience and an ethic of optimism are not only good strategy. They are an ethical stance toward life and a way to survive whatever the world throws at us.
I know many of you feel a profound feeling of relief at this moment, one that I share. Celebration of hard-won victories is central to an ethical stance toward life. But there is no going back to the world before Trump. Because we are still in the midst of the world and circumstances that created him. We remain surrounded by conditions he created or accentuated by his presence. Indeed, he’s still in the wings likely plotting some comeback. There’s only going forward. We’ll all have an easier time if we don’t expect that going back is possible. Our reality is working to create something different and better, with something like the same order of engagement and exertion we’ve experienced over the last four years. We must learn resilience and not set ourselves up for disappointment by thinking any of this will be easy.
There are so many ways that Joe Biden helps me put this moment into perspective.
Here is a man who arrived in Congress, starting close to the top almost fifty years ago, with everything before him. Apart from the personal tragedies we know about he sought the presidency in his forties and failed, badly. He tried again in 2008 and was little more than an asterisk in that contest before Barack Obama chose him as his running mate. One thing that made Biden an effective Vice President is that he was clearly too old and too realistic to have future presidential ambitions. He’s the guy with his foot in his mouth, a man of Onion memes. But sometimes life creates moments for people. Some kinds of greatness are difficult to achieve without having already accepted that one’s life is marked more by failure than triumph.
There is a whole cult dedicated to Winston Churchill. The reality is that Churchill spent most of his life as a politician who started at the very top and then found numerous ways to fail, largely through his own mercurial nature, stubbornness and misjudgments. But late in life the world came together in a particular, horrifying way that made Churchill’s characteristic strengths somehow all that mattered. His flaws either fell to the background or, paradoxically, transmuted into strengths.
I’ve thought many times over the last year that history has come together in a similar way for Joe Biden. His resilience, penchant for expressive empathy and experience of suffering suddenly seemed perfectly matched to a broken, grieving country reeling from a presidency rooted in predation, egotism and brutality. These are always valuable experiences and qualities. But in most historical moments they would be secondary ones. We should all be so lucky to have our flawed selves find the moment for which we alone are perfectly suited. It is resilience that keeps us present and ready.