I’ve never felt more engulfed in waves of simultaneous despair and hope than I felt as I read “‘I Couldn’t Do Anything’: The Virus and an E.R. Doctor’s Suicide” in the New York Times last Saturday. Dr. Lorna Breen, the emergency-department supervisor at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital who took her life on April 26, embodied all the good, all the agape (selfless unconditional love), all the standards of learning, noble achievement, selflessness, and joy that Americans once congratulated themselves on (uniquely) possessing.
America is crumbling before our eyes. There seems to be no counterforce. As white nationalists brandish powerful weapons on the streets and in statehouses, and fire them into crowds and churches, the left . . . topples statues. Statues on both sides of our historic ideological divide.
Dr. Breen trumpeted no ideology, but she did something more than topple statues. Something noble and life-affirming. She was part of a nationwide, overwhelmed band of sisters and brothers—emergency workers—who do the brutal work of saving plague-afflicted lives. She paid for her agape with fatigue, despair, the vile illness that gripped her as it has gripped so many of her fellow front-line workers. Ultimately she paid with her life, at her own loving hands.
Americans who consider themselves “progressive”—well, all Americans—need to get beyond the narcissistic pleasures of virtue-signaling. As we tilt Quixote-like at our statues, we might do well to recall a couple of ideas from Abraham Lincoln—one of whose statues is on the good-liberal removal list. Lincoln’s ideas apply to Dr. Breen and her colleagues, and to our pathways of response to her sacrifice.
At Gettysburg in November 1863 Lincoln said: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” He said: “It is for us the living . . . to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” He said: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
And now we are engaged in a new civil war. We are in a new test—several tests—to see whether our nation can long endure. Dr. Lorna Breen and her sisters and brothers have fought and too often died while struggling with their unfinished work against one collateral facet of this war: the national political indifference to the coronavirus plague.
We the living can advance that unfinished work by building on the legacy of Dr. Lorna Breen.
There are so many ways to pursue this work: ways that require commitment and courage and patience on a scale that most of us have never confronted.
We could begin by building a statue to her.