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Pop Culture Snapshot: Abraham Lincoln and the Pain of a High Calling
Abraham Lincoln's boyhood home is not far from my grandmother’s house in Southern Indiana. I spent most of my summers with her, and she would take me to "ole Abe's house." Safe to say, I viewed Lincoln through the eyes of a hero-worshiping child.
As I grew and studied him, I realized he wasn’t the pure knight with a single-minded abolitionist purpose. He had complex motivations resulting from his desire to save the union. Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day Lewis brought this complexity to the screen in the movie Lincoln.
Spielberg chose to illustrate Lincoln’s complexity by focusing on the fight to pass the 13th amendment to the Constitution. This fight presents America in all of its complications, sadness, grossness, beauty, inspiring acts of moral courage, and our mistreatment of fellow human beings. Here, Lincoln becomes the embodiment of our American story. Spielberg shows that he wasn't above political tactics. And he paints a Lincoln who tries to respond to African Americans in the midst of his own confusion about their race. In the end, as America often does, Lincoln rises from the ashes of his own complicated humanity to become a legend of freedom.
The more I study history, the more I realize that human beings don't behave in neat, clean categories. None of us can truly be the "unsullied hero." Lincoln had to travel a journey often filled with bad decisions—what we would now consider racist opinions—grief, and pain. But he found his call: to liberate his brothers and sisters.
We can learn a lot in Lincoln’s story as presented in the movie. Our shortcomings, blind spots, and outright sins can never be a block to pursuing our high calling. Nor should we expect those around us, and our heroes, to be picture perfect. We, and they, rarely are, and that’s the glory of beauty from ashes.
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