Symbols can heal us in ways that speeches cannot. Years ago I recall being surprisingly moved by a national memorial: during Ronald Reagan’s funeral procession, as a camera closed in on the “riderless horse” with empty boots in the stirrups, a traditional army tribute to a soldier who has died, I found myself suddenly moved to tears.
You must understand that that symbol wasn’t one with particular meaning to me, nor was I especially impacted by the expected death of a former president. Yet the year mattered: this was 2004, just a few short years after the trauma of the 9/11 attacks, and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were growing. We as a country had not yet had occasion to grieve all that we had lost, from a baseline feeling of safety and security to the loss of thousands of people who could well be imagined by those empty riding boots. As I watched the ceremony and felt this unexpected emotion I realized that I was grieving something deeper, and wondered if this presidential funeral was, without meaning to be, serving as a needed memorial for a more immediate, yet unspoken, loss.
Symbols, handled properly with reverence and true humility, can heal in a way that words cannot, and can disrupt us and break us open to something new. This week I watched the presidential inauguration more closely than I ever had, in part out of concern for potential violence but also to hear what would be said in the stillness of a near-empty National Mall.
Instead of crowds, flags on the national mall silently bore witness to the loss of the past year. Against the bright backdrop of a socially-distanced platform, the symbols of the day skipped the applause and were forced to speak for themselves.
Symbols get under your skin, they keep you up at night and they speak to you in the morning when you first rise. That is a terrifying reality when those symbols speak of hate and threaten violence, as we well know from just two weeks before when that set of symbols painted blood across the very same canvas of the People’s House.
The symbols of January 20th exorcised those demons like nothing else could. Laugh if you must, but I thought the queen-sized dove on Lady Gaga’s dress was a great start: sometimes violent propaganda is best transfigured with playful absurdity. More significantly, the flags on the Mall spoke of those who’ve died in the pandemic, but in their own way represented every person who has marched in that space in hope of equality and human dignity.
Yet symbol from that day shines brightest to me was Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem The Hill We Climb: this didn’t just get under my skin, it reached my bloodstream and found its way to my heart. Love casts out hate, and beauty reveals cheap symbols for what they are: with words of truth and hope Ms. Gorman broke the fever of the past few weeks, and denied the rioters permission to decide how we are to speak going forward:
How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert: How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was,
But move to what shall be,
A country that is bruised by whole,
Benevolent but bold,
Fierce and Free.
-Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb