Van Ens: Live as if your life spirals upward
America’s sweetheart, Judy Garland, interjected a wistful tone when singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in the 1944 hit screen musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” She longed for a better day. Garland sang as if she were pricked in a treacherous patch of brambles cultivated by the Great Depression and World War II. Garland’s dreams for better days were bloodied.
In contrast, after being elected for a fourth term in the 1944 presidential election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt sounded upbeat. His lilting tenor voice made Americans feel as if he were conducting a band playing a stirring John Philip Sousa March. Roosevelt cheered on citizens to remain resilient during tough times. His outlook seeing life spiraling upward was modeled after a robust stock market graph that, despite occasional dips, advances upward.
Roosevelt tapped key biblical resources for his 1945 inaugural address, which strengthened citizens’ backbones. The U.S. had finally moved beyond the Great Depression. Japan’s Pacific fleet was largely sunk or crippled. Their armies retreated to Japanese home islands for the last stand. GIs in Europe had crossed the Rhine River and marched towards Berlin. The beginning of the end of World War II was near.
Long-faced citizens welcomed Roosevelt’s bolstering words that he convincingly delivered in his 1945 inaugural address.
Roosevelt tapped reservoirs of Christian inspiration. Episcopalian headmaster Endicott Peabody at the Groton prep school in Massachusetts had imparted them to FDR who was a student there. Peabody expected students to memorize portions of the Bible, regularly attend chapel services and practice virtues that helped destitute people.
This sturdy Christian faith functioned as a song rising in young Franklin’s soul. He did not fear the future. FDR pictured what awaited the U.S. around the corner as if it were a spiral reaching towards the horizon.
In his 1945 inaugural address, Roosevelt revisited what Peabody taught him 45 years before. He quoted his “old schoolmaster,” declaring “things in life may not always run smoothly … (but) the great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward; that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.”
In the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis,” Judy Garland’s usual cheery voice turned melancholy with harmful disruptions the Great Depression and World War II caused. She sang as if she pictured life as a circle, going around and around, mired in grief.
Don’t we commiserate with Garland this new year? COVID-19 deaths top 823,000. Some states are locked down, with beds for those grasping for breath placed in outdoor tents raised on parking lots because ICU units are full. Usually, New Year’s parties bring opportunities to connect with friends and family. Now, we huddle alone, trying to escape the pandemic’s inexorable advance.
Tinged with sadness, Garland sang lyric to what has become a Christmas classic: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”
Garland’s voice could not camouflage nasty reality. Hearts ached for killed GIs who returned home in body bags. Loneliness shrouded feelings of a merry Christmas. The war kept on and on. It felt like a rolling ball crushing citizens’ aspirations.
“Faithful friends who were once dear” to moms, dads and lovers would not “be near to us, once more” — no matter how gallantly Garland crooned this Christmas tune.
To hearts loaded with sorrow, Garland keened, “Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
FDR did not muddle through tough times. His Christian faith helped him surmount misfortune, as it had bolstered a biblical writer fleeing Roman persecution on the island of Patmos. The poet experienced a baffling vision on a Sunday morning. He imagined a colossal Christ who announced, “I am the Alpha and Omega,” the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (Revelation 1: 8). This symbolic language pictured Christ holding the world in His strong hands, even after calamity struck.
Similarly, poet Mary Anne Radmacher lists traits of life’s wounded warriors who focus on better days spiraling upwards. Then we “live with intention. We (dare) walk to the edge. We listen hard. Practice wellness. Play with abandon. (Tearfully) laugh. Choose with no regret. Continue to learn. Appreciate friends. Relish doing what we love.”
On the eve of his election to a third term in 1940, Roosevelt shared a prayer from his student days that Peabody recited. “Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties and fashion into one people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindred spirits.” It roused listeners.
Take to heart FDR’s perspective of life spiraling upward. Embrace those encircled by grief, who muddle on and need in this new year more than a merry little Christmas to lift their spirits.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (TheLivingHistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.