Arma virumque cano
- Virgil ; The Aeneid Book 1, Line 1
I was in Philadelphia all day on Saturday. I went to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in the morning, the Italian Markets, Reading Terminal, the Barnes Foundation, and Chinatown in the afternoon, and saw The Lion King at the Academy of Music in the evening. It was, in short, an absolutely incredible day.
As I was thoroughly enjoying The Lion King in such a regal theater as The Academy of Music, I became aware of how interesting it was that my Saturday, on Memorial Day weekend no less, was book-ended by themes of Freedom, Truth, Liberty, and Justice and all within the context of two great bildungsromans, otherwise known as coming of age stories - the transformation of Simba from a lion cub to a lion king and the recondite story of 13 disparate colonies unifying into one great nation. I even began to realize how these two bildungsromans highlight and compliment each other in interesting ways.
Independence Hall is a miraculous and sacred site where ordinary, awful, imperfect, and yet still splendid and inspired men came together and wrestled with how to actually birth not just any nation, but a land that stands for truth, liberty, and universality. But of course, in the end, life complicates even the best of intentions - there are always compromises to be made. Imperfections and discord settle themselves into the roots and constitutions of all things. However granular or obtuse as they may be, they seem to never-the-less grind deep into the fabric of our masterpieces. On September 17, 1787, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin closed the deliberations at the Constitutional Convention by stating:
I confess, that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present; but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it...Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.
And so the ripples begin to fan out further. Time and space continue marching themselves forward, and we are caught in both their wake and current simultaneously. We are creator and we are created. Victor and victim. As we blaze every new trail, so too do new mountains form before us in the distance.
Disney's The Lion King Musical is a spectacular work of art. Theatrically it is epic and poetic. Musically it is deeply stirring and vibrant. Visually it is masterfully and brilliantly designed and choreographed. There are very good reasons it earned so many nominations and awards. I highly recommend it for children of all ages.
In case you've been hiding under a rock since 1994, when The Lion King first came out in movie theaters, it is basically a coming of age story that in most respects has the story-line of Hamlet but is set on the African Savannah and the main characters are lions and other safari animals. The turning point of the story is when Simba has what is known in the world of literary criticism as a moment of anagnorisis. He realizes and admits to himself that he is in fact the living son of Mufasa and the rightful heir to the throne. He overcomes and banishes all doubt and fear that he may be harboring inside himself that would deny his true identity. He "comes of age" as it were and journeys forth onto his next quest to challenge his evil uncle Scar and restore peace, abundance, and blessing to all the kingdom. It was at this time in the musical, this moment of anagnorisis for Simba, that I began to connect the events of my day together.
I flashed down Broad Street, flew through City Hall, made a right onto Market Street then onto 6th and Chestnut and bam! There I was in the unassuming rooms of Independence Hall again. There was George Read's walking stick sitting on an 18th century wooden table beside an inkwell and a feather quill. There was the regal yet still austere wooden chair for George Washington to preside - a beaming sun carved at the top of it, now rising before all the assembly. And then across the street, I recalled the photo of Martin Luther King Jr. standing beside the great crack of the Liberty Bell. And here I was sitting in orchestra seats at the Academy of Music with Simba and the great African landscape rich and magical dancing and singing before me and hundreds of others. The cast of actors on stage were all beautiful and black, powerful, joyful, and wise. What a testimony for who we truly are! What a blessing for this great nation - a nation where only a few blocks away from me and some couple hundred years ago, slavery had not only been defended but legally codified. And now this. Now The Lion King. The transformation and accomplishment is staggering. A great bildungsroman living and breathing, dynamic and developing before our very eyes. A blessing ever alive, ever available for each human and every generation that lives. Anything is truly possible given time and a genuine desire for Truth.
Yet even still, as I sat in awe and wonder of America swirling and singing before me and all around me, I listened again to Simba. I watched him gaze into magic waters and see his father appear to him in a vision. The Great Mufasa - King of the Jungle. I observed Simba, for a time, still doubtful and fearful of his own true self. I saw how he, with help from a wise, playful baboon, came to his senses, and realigned with his faith and courage. His dignity and love for the Truth, for himself, and for all those that loved him surged again, and he was whole and powerful, able to attempt and perhaps accomplish great feats mighty and true. He was transformed into himself anew. And then I thought of us, of America, of our politicians today, and the state of our nation. And yes it is true - I found hope again. But it is not a hope springing from anything that I see or hear or even sense radiating from those in power. It is instead a hope founded on truth - the truth which I witnessed before me with Simba and with The Lion King and Mitchell, the National Parks Ranger who guided and spoke to me and 30 others at Independence Hall. I saw that all darkness has its place. That evil times call for even finer and more powerful virtues. Greatness lives forevermore in each man and woman and in all things evermore. Our intelligence, tolerance, ingenuity, and courage memorialize more interminably that which is the best of ourselves. The ways in which we care for each other and nourish our creativity are the more lasting memorials of each individual, each nation, including this America. Without living truths, all monuments across the land are vacant and hollowed out. Their sound and resonance muffled perhaps even lost to our ears and Souls when struck.
In As You Like It Shakespeare has the wise and clownish Jacques state "All the world's a stage". Jacques goes on to describe the seven ages of man, and in doing so maps out his own comedic bildungsroman ranging from birth to young lover to middle age mediocrity and eventually returning again to helpless infancy and death. Truth is often best swallowed with honey. Regardless of how dark the night becomes, it is pivotal for both an individual as well as a nation to realize this too has its place. That this darkness proves its true purpose. We can use even this to cultivate growth, transformation, transcendence. When the curtain of this great "world stage" drops, there will be a moment of pause and anticipation, and just as the curtain rises again and the play's cast reappear, so too shall we all once again reveal ourselves and celebrate the roles we've played, the pains and joys we've now endured, the insights we've come to attain. All will be shared. All will be applauded. A standing ovation may be in order. Another Act in this nation's play has begun. The arc is ever nigh. The turning point always fast approaching. The deeper anagnorisis is readied and stilled for us to look upon, if we so desire. We are all here, and we will all triumph together as well as individually. We all have our parts to play. And each man, woman, and child must chart life as they see fit - and they do. We all already live the life we were born to live. We are all hearing the round of applause for our performances - continually memorialized in time and space. We shall rise again for another day, for another transformation, and for an even louder, more resonant roar of the great lion within.