← Back to November 2014

Dedication and Thanksgiving

links image

Vincent Valentine, MD
ISHLT Links Editor-in-Chief
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

About a century prior to the first human lung transplantation by Dr Hardy and his collaborators, a dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg occurred on November 19, 1863. Selected for the keynote speaker was the former president of Harvard, leader of the Greek revival and one of the most noted and eloquent orators of that time, the Honorable Edward Everett. In response to the decision to invite the President, Abraham Lincoln, for a few appropriate remarks, someone retorted, "I don't know - all he does is tells jokes. I think he will be an embarrassment." Everett's address lasted for two hours. Lincoln's brief remarks took a little more than two minutes. Today, when we refer to the Gettysburg Address, we think of Lincoln's speech.

Although November is a month celebrated with two other perhaps more recognizable holidays-Veteran's Day or Day of Peace as it is known elsewhere, and of course, Thanksgiving - Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is what I suggest you revisit. Even today, we can pay homage to its meaning and how it and these holidays of gratitude link us to what we've dedicated our lives.

Lincoln's eloquent speech, albeit seemingly abstract, was as deliberate and precise as a swinging pendulum taking us not only to and fro in time but also back and forth in life and death. It begins with his timeless two rhyming words sweeping us to our past.

"Four Score and seven years ago," tolls like a cathedral bell beckoning our attention. It is a reference to the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence (1863 - 1776= four score and seven years). Immediately we are reminded of our inter-relatedness by the familial and obstetrical imagery that follows. Reference to "our fathers" is a family relationship emphasizing that we are descendants of these founders. With obstetrical analogies, "brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty" we take pride in the life of this land. From here Lincoln culls out of all possibilities the first of the self-evident truths..."all men are created equal." And with that we know what the war is ultimately about-giving those who have died the greatest possible honor by advancing Thomas Jefferson's principle that these fallen have enabled this nation yet another new birth.

After only a single sentence, Lincoln's words swing us out of our past and into the present. "Now we are engaged in a great civil war..." Time is suspended and dangles without ties to the battle, the cemetery, the confederacy or the army of the Potomac. Instead we are grounded in the immediate occasion, "we are met to dedicate a portion of that battle-field" and we are resolved to acknowledge the seamless connectivity of life and death, "...for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live."

With a somber cadence Lincoln acknowledges, "It is altogether fitting and proper" to meet for this dedication, yet he subverts that expectation with grave repetitive sacred phrases. "But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground." We can't meet for this dedication, because it has been done already by the brave acts of those who fought here. His rhetorical strategy was an antithesis contrasting the living with the dead, and humility with pride, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." The latter four words are his summary of the battle and clearly he views that their actions speak louder than any words expressed that day.

From the present, "We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place..." the pendulum takes its final swing toward the future in a rededication, "to the great task remaining before us.." The standard eulogy developed in Ancient Greece by Pericles gives a transformative theme of praise for the dead and advice for the living. Lincoln reverently honors the valiant dead and advises that we follow in their devotion such that his focus shifts from the nation to the world. Lincoln never specifies the "great task' remaining. This is a subject for interpretation. What about our work? What about honoring the dead, the dying patients and the organ donors that might motivate in us the devotion Lincoln encourages? What of the great task he suggests? Perhaps one could be to improve our ability to care for others. Another greater task may just have a personal meaning for health care providers, patients, leaders or anyone in the world. Perhaps we should focus on what we do rather than what happens. This process is more valuable and may prove more successful than simply reporting data. In other words, instead of stating our outcomes and simply recording the results, we should explain our data and improve the process for what's best for all.

The Honorable Edward Everett was the first to recognize this in a letter to Lincoln, he writes, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes." The ever so humble Lincoln replied, "In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure."

Every year around Thanksgiving I read from the coveted Pulitzer Prize winning book, Abraham Lincoln by Carl Sandburg. Chapter 38, Lincoln Speaks at Gettysburg, is one I encourage all to read, paying particular attention to the final six paragraphs. In these final words there is a "...tall old clock in a quiet corner telling time in a tick-tock deliberation." Whether, "...the orchard branches hung with pink-spray blossoms or icicles of sleet, whether the outside news was seed time or harvest, rain or drought...," births or deaths, air moving in and out of airways effortlessly like the swing of a pendulum. "In a row of graves there is an unidentified boy who had listened to its tick-tock and learned to read its minute and hour hands. His years measured off by the swinging pendulum had gone awry and swallowed with other men into a deep sea of man-made smoke and steel."

"The mystery deepened and moved with ancient music because a solemn Man of Authority stood at the tombs of the unknown soldiers and spoke the words. We cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground." The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract... from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.

Shortly after Lincoln's return from Gettysburg, he was sick with small pox. He quipped, "I now have something I can give everybody." Contagion.

Happy Thanksgiving. And a special Thanksgiving to my writer friend, Julia Hayes.

This article has previously been published as part of the November 2011 Links Newsletter.

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

References: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/gettyb.asp

Share via:

links image    links image    links image    links image