The film March of the Penguins documents the lives of Emperor Penguins as they travel hundred of miles across the ice of Antarctica in order to lay their eggs and hatch their young. In one striking scene, the penguins begin to draw together as a storm draws in. As the winds intensify and the temperature plunges, the penguins huddle together into a solid mass, trying to stay warm. Every few minutes, the penguins on the outside, who had borne the brunt of the howling wind and the cold, would rotate into the mass to thaw, while others took their place on the fringe. Faced with the harsh climate, they knew their only way to survive was to stay together.
I was reminded of that scene yesterday, while we were leaving the Presidential Prayer Service at National Cathedral. The service itself had been a remarkable coming-together of America: the proud African-American women, dressed to the hilt in heels and fur coats; beaming Muslim women in bright head-scarves snapping pictures of the President; Jews in tallit and Episcopalians chanting and a Gospel choir singing and a Rabbi and an Imam calling us to prayer. And then we spilled out into the shining sun of a twenty-degree winter day, only to find that they were not going to let us go anywhere until the motorcades had departed. And so we stood there in the cold, a couple thousand people with no place to go, and as the minutes stretched out, we began to come together, our long line turning itself into a cluster, seeking the warmth of other human beings.
It is not always so. Faced with other kinds of threats, we seem to fall into division, seeking to ensure that we have enough, that our family or class or tribe has enough, letting the others fall by the wayside. And yet, when we pull apart, none of us seems to get enough to thrive, for what we need is not only stuff and privilege, but that essential warmth of being part of humanity. The trust of being in it together, whatever the “it” we are facing.
At the end of their trek, at the end of the storms, at the end of months of fasting, of passing their eggs from one foot to another to keep them from dying in the Antarctic cold, the penguins received an unmatchable gift: new life. Running around the feet of the adults, upending their staid order, the chicks flapped and flopped and cavorted in joy.What new life might we attain if we came together as one people? What would it be like to live in a society that was less divided, less hostile, in which we sought one another’s good? Can you remember such a time? What can you do to make such a future?