My son was six years old in 2008, when Barack Obama selected Joe Biden to be his vice presidential running mate. My son is a true obsessive; he develops interests and feeds on them like a vulture until he strips the carcass clean and moves on. During the 2008 presidential race, he was obsessed with trains. When he found out Joe Biden took Amtrak every day between Washington, D.C., and his home in Delaware, he concluded the ticket was worth his support, based solely on that piece of information. He was, henceforth, an unabashed supporter of the Obama/Biden administration. As the years passed, he found more substantive reasons for his support. Political beliefs are said to be informed first by worldview, and his worldview is thoroughly liberal.
As it happens, Joe and Jill Biden will be taking Amtrak home to Delaware after the inauguration. My son is now fourteen, and will be sad to see them go.
But tonight I was thinking about why Joe Biden took Amtrak every day for so many years, and how that is connected to what I value most about him as a public official. As most people know, Joe Biden was elected to the Senate when he was 29 years old. The month after his election, he got a phone call when he was in Washington hiring his staff, a call he would later recall he just “knew” contained bad news; his wife and toddler daughter had been killed in a car accident and his two sons were hurt.
There are events in our lives that are so seismic that the remainder of our life’s time – what we do with it, how we feel about it, how we approach it – becomes, in some way, organized around them. It’s up to us, of course, what that means – whether it embitters us or opens us up; whether it turns us hard or whether we become soft to the experiences and pains of others. It’s clear to me that Joe Biden has chosen the latter path. In a speech he gave to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a group that provides support and care for the families of those killed while in the Armed Forces, Biden recounted his experience with the death of his wife and child. I have watched that speech many times, because of the facility with which he speaks of pain, grief, and recovery. The last time I watched it, I couldn’t help but notice that almost exactly three years after giving that speech, he lost his son, Beau Biden, to cancer.
The thread that runs through most of the public discussions of his own grief is an ever-present acknowledgement that grief is universal, that other people made it through similar losses with much less support than he had, and that the true marvel of human existence is that we get up in the face of grief at all. In his speech at the Democratic National Convention, he said:
As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, many are strong in the broken places.” I’ve been made strong at the broken places by my love with Jill, by my heart and son Hunter and the love of my life, my Ashley. By all of you, and I mean this sincerely, those who have been through this, you know I mean what I say — by all of you, your love and prayers and support. But you know what, we talk about, we think about the countless thousands of other people who suffered so much more than we have, with so much less support. So much less reason to go on. But they get up every morning, every day. They put one foot in front of the other, they keep going.
In an interview with Stephen Colbert in 2015:
There are so many people….who have had losses as severe or worse than mine, and didn’t have the incredible support I have. … “Think of all the people you know who are going through horrible things and they get up every morning and they put one foot in front of the other….I marvel at the ability of people to absorb hurt and just get back up. And most of them do it with an incredible sense of empathy to other people.
This is how to talk about grief – and maybe how to deal with it, too. There’s a balance here that accounts for both the gravity of one’s personal pain and the universality of human anguish. Grief is a part of the human condition, but it’s also deeply personal, and we each experience it uniquely. If we err too far on either side, we miss the whole of it. We either minimize our human vulnerabilities, or we miss what connects us to others. Either way, we’re missing our whole humanity.
To me, it’s deeply valuable for high level public officials to have both the experience of deep grief and the ability to speak about that experience, while extending empathy and recognition to the grief of others.
I’ll miss it.
(This is only about politics in the most limited sense. I intend to avoid many of the problems found in many comments sections discussing the incoming or outgoing administrations. Keep it positive, please. or silent. I know my regular readers are good at that!)