Lincoln: All the World’s a Stage—But Are You On It?

Lincoln: All the World’s a Stage—But Are You On It? November 29, 2012

I took my family to see the new Spielberg movie Lincoln over the Thanksgiving weekend. The theater was packed. I sensed throughout the movie that the audience was engaged, caught up in the drama. The acting was great. So too was the subject matter. Lincoln, the man and legend, demands a commanding performance, for he seized his moment in history on the grand stage of the world and acted out his heroic and tragically flawed part to near perfection.

There is a scene in the movie, which you can watch in the official trailer (48-103 seconds), that shows President Lincoln talking with key associates and political operatives. They were quite critical of Lincoln’s drive to change the Constitution and abolish slavery at a time when the opportunity existed to bring a cessation to the war and peace with the South (which would have allowed slavery in the South to continue). Lincoln listens to their challenges and then responds with great passion, claiming that they had stepped out on the world stage and that the fate of the dignity of humanity was in their hands. They must not stop. They must not wait. He fervently exhorted them that they had to act now.

Lincoln loved theater. I recall reading how he would imitate the theatrics of preachers as he retold their sermons to his friends as a youth. He loved to tell stories to people. He often enjoyed attending productions in Washington. He even died at a theater—shot in the head by an actor whom he had earlier watched perform on the very same stage (Ford’s Theater). But this was no tall tale or great fiction. Even in his viewing box at Ford’s Theater, Lincoln was on the stage of life.

As I filed out of the movie theater with my family and a host of others this past weekend, I was left wondering if we were merely spectators. Is it only rare, larger-than-life characters like Abraham Lincoln, who perform on stage? Few people in the history of this great country are as great as Lincoln. But even Lincoln wasn’t born great. He was the most common of commoners in terms of his roots and upbringing. I guess that is part of his greatness: he did not allow his background to be an excuse or a deterrent to get up on stage. He had been seeking to move from the seats to the stage ever since he was a boy. He was not content with being a mere spectator.

We live in a culture that often divides people into performers and spectators. Even in the movie, there is a scene where Lincoln asks an aid if “we” are “fitted” (which I understand to mean destined) for the times in which we live. The aid responds that he does not know about himself, but thinks that such may be the case with the President. I believe Lincoln wanted everyone to perform on stage, including this young aid as well as slaves. Everyone is destined to be free. We should all cheer one another on to be truly free and pursue excellence as we climb on stage together, fitted for the times in which we live, seeking to act out our own tragically flawed parts to perfection, like Lincoln. Fear of failure, fear of others, fear of discomfort and pain often keep us from performing our parts well. We are often dead before we die because we fear to live. I fear at times that such paralysis grips me. Lincoln died living. He feared not living well his moment on the great stage of life. Which will it be for you—the fear to live or the fear not to live out your part well?

Let me encourage you: Don’t simply watch Lincoln. Don’t try to live your life through him. Let him inspire you with his rise from humble beginnings to greatness on one of the greatest stages in modern history to play your own part well and fulfill your destiny to care for others in need like Lincoln did, and at great cost to himself. This is no mere dress rehearsal. This is your moment. This is your life.

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