Have you ever tried to meditate? Or hear about people putting in hours of prayer and concentrated study? I've given it a good shot. I had good intentions and put myself in a quiet place and got to the moment where I could say, "OK, begin." But that was kind of like the beginning of a hot dog eating contest. It isn't like a car or horse or foot race where you begin and it's like immediately exciting and challenging. Meditating and hot dog eating is like "Ready? Go!" And then the guys start swallowing hot dogs or meditators start concentrating. For hot dogs, it isn't till the end when they're choking them down that it becomes something to cheer about. For meditating, the challenge is simply staying on task. "Ready? set? Start thinking.” Not too compelling; sort of like one of those foreign movies on PBS.
So anyway I drew the shades and put on a soft light. I got in my comfortable chair and closed my eyes. I worked to push all stray thoughts out of my mind. I began to think of my grandfather who used to tease me and say, "Now whatever you do, don't think about alligators." Well, of course, at that point all I could think of was those big chompers. But I'm a man now. Time to get over this. In my mind I kept saying, "OK."
Did I turn the stove off?
Do I need to stop for gas in the morning?
Did I plug my phone in?
OK, OK, OK--stop.
Do I get paid this week?
Is that dentist appointment this Friday or next?
Are we out of ice cream?
OK, OK, OK--STOP!
Deep breath - - -
OK, c’mon--start to do this now, Ronald. Maybe start by counting your blessings. The family is healthy, bills are paid up (mostly), job is secure (this month), cars are not in need of repair (but I do need tires on her car), wish I had a new car. Man, how I would love to get a little red convertib…..STOP!
Ok ok ok--Here I go. Ahhhh forget it!
Then I really do start to think. If I am having this much trouble concentrating, how in the world did Winston Churchill settle in and craft an effective speech? How did Lincoln, Kennedy, and other great American orators put aside all of their strife and political woes and find a way to concentrate so well that they were able to form and shape essays, documents and moments of history so flawless and epic? I only have family issues and a fistful of utility bills to worry about. They were carrying countries on their backs! How’d they do it?
Maybe it was because they had staffs and writers that took their raw ideas and turned them into prose. Maybe because they sat thinking out loud and clerks took pages of dictation that would later be reshaped and edited into poetic phrases. Maybe it’s the benefit of generous retelling (which most of history is I find) and the famous speeches, the historic moments were not really as compelling as they have been now romanced to be.
Did you know Lincoln’s 2-minute speech was preceded by a 2-hour speech by Edward Everett? Since the speech was given at a cemetery, there was likely minimal seating and since it was a mid-November afternoon in Pennsylvania, chances are it was fairly cold. I don’t know about you but if I stood through a 2-hour speech in the cold and then they introduced the next speaker I’d be like, ”Oh man , this is going to go on all day!” It’s also been observed that Lincoln was coming down with small pox as he rendered his speech, so his tone was probably rather weak and subdued. My point is we have all heard that the Gettysburg address was jotted on the back of an envelope as Lincoln sat on the train in route. The speech has been lauded for its sweeping, comprehensive accuracy as well as its surprising brevity. Lincoln’s solemn and wise authority is always said to be reflected in those famous words. Maybe it was so, maybe not.
Lincoln was as much an “every man” as he was a president. Those who studied him know he loved to tell stories with punch lines and was always interested in a good joke.
So I’m supposing maybe this. Maybe old Abe had sat down at home to write the address several times but couldn’t concentrate. His wife, Mary, was probably busting his chops about every little thing and the Civil War had taxed his mind beyond clear thinking and he finally decided “Heck, I’ll just write something on the train when I get a moment to think.” So he boards the train and everybody wants to talk to him and blah, blah, blah, and Mr. President this and Mr. President that, so he makes his way to a seat and slouches his tall, lanky frame as if he’s going to take a brief nap. As people depart to their seats, he pulls out an old letter and starts writing on the back of the envelope. He’s trying to sort his thoughts when it occurs to him that he has been told Everett will speak for 2 hours before him. Two hours? He knows the value of getting audience approval. He knows how to tell a joke and use good timing. He knows everyone is still hurting from the lengthy war and that it is time for healing. “I’ll make this short and to the point,” he thinks. And for the next few minutes his mind is clear and the climate is right and he scribbles down the clearest of thoughts in the most succinct manner. He starts at the beginning of this country’s history, “Four score and seven years ago ...”
A great, historical speech? Yes. Were the people there aware they had heard such a piece of history? Probably not. Did Lincoln command a great ability to concentrate beyond what you and I can muster to craft this moment and conduct this occasion? I doubt it. I’m thinking we were pretty close to the same--pretty close; pretty human, pretty normal; no matter how well we pray.
Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at email@example.com.