Expat Living: Keys To Tough Decisions When There Is No Right Answer

I love beautiful, old architecture. It has so much to teach us…

I love the history and Life Lessons that we gain from understanding the circumstances surrounding these old buildings.

Here’s a grand example, one that also happens to have several Life Lessons ready for us to share.

View of the west wing of the Sherman bldg, Old Soldier's Home

Where Is This?

Beyond the fabulously blue skies, perfect weather gave me a good chance to pick out some interesting features, architecturally speaking.

Old Soldiers Home at Lincoln's Cottage Washington DC ca 1880s

Who Built This? …  Do You Know Why?



Shall I give you a clue yet?

Ok, let’s just say these buildings are a result of doing the right thing when it mattered most, for ones who needed it most. (The “rest of the story” will be revealed at the end of the post, if you haven’t figured it out way before that!)


Tough Choices, Looking For Answers

I wrote in my previous post (the one I shared last week when I got caught up in the saga of Rocky and the Raccoon relocation dilemma) that I had been experiencing a recurring theme over the last several days:

⊗  Each choice I needed to make seemed to have two valid sides, and the “right” answer just never seemed to be at all cut-and-dried clear.  ⊗

As expats and global travelers, we learn to be problem solvers pretty early on.  We learn or we don’t survive long…

But, occasionally there comes a problem that seems to have no good answers, no ready solution.

Among other things, I was dealing with what to do about the raccoon– live and let live, or part ways and relocate. It’s always hard to know what’s right, especially when your heart is at odds with your head.

As we weighed our options, I coincidentally had a chance to see how this kind of head vs. heart decision-making process played out in a surprisingly up-close-and-personal way.

Only this time, it came about on a much larger, and way more important, stage.

Learning From Others: The Choices We All Must Make

My friend Jackie and I had decided to go visit a place that not many tourists in Washington DC know about- a place not many locals have seen either, for that matter- based on a tip from a teacher friend who said it was one of the most moving places she had been.

And she was right. It was a good choice.

As we in the United States think about the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, as it’s also known), it was a perfect time to visit this little known national historic site.

Photo of Abraham Lincoln's Cottage at the Old Soldiers' Home, with bronze sculpture of Lincoln with his horse.

Lincoln’s Cottage at the Old Soldiers’ Home, with bronze sculpture of A. Lincoln

Beyond viewing a place of significant Civil War history, as we visited Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington DC, I came away with a deeper sense of the moral and idealistic issues President Lincoln was struggling with.

It also gave me a better understanding of what life was like for this president, the man who bore our sorrow as the only leader to preside over issues so unsolvable they tore the fabric of our still young nation in two.

In fact, as he struggled with making the right choice for our nation, he was not hundreds of miles safely removed. He could see the anger from his doorstep. I learned that President Abraham Lincoln became the only president ever to come under hostile fire while in office.

All month I had been working on issues where there didn’t seem to be a right answer, and here I was, right in the middle of a bigger-than-life object lesson. Sort of put my small problems in perspective really quickly.

Photo of Lincoln's Cottage at the Old Soldiers Home Washington DC, the Doorway of IdeasWhen you tour this “cottage,” you notice that it isn’t a vignette of what life “looked” like with clothing, furnishings and kitchen utensils.

No, this place is about ideas. Moral concepts.

It’s about ideals more than making a choice over who was right and who was wrong in the divisive issue of slavery. How to make a decision that would allow both sides to unite in some peaceable solution?

This cottage was the place Abraham Lincoln got a first hand look at the impact his every word had on the people who had elected him.

What Would Lincoln Do?

As part of an “open door” practice in the day, we heard the story of a man who came to Mr. Lincoln looking for help in collecting his deceased wife’s body, which had unfortunately been taken in by a morgue that was by then in Confederate hands.

Mr. Lincoln reacted harshly at first saying that Secretary of War (Edwin) Stanton should handle it and so on. I was shocked at the human-ness, the stress and the frustration we heard in the reading of Lincoln’s words.  But I was also heartened by the next audio reading that found Lincoln apologizing to the man later on, giving him a more considered answer- help would be forthcoming.

The issue was a micro illustration of the complexity the president had to deal with: Could he do this for everyone who needed help? Would everyone feel free to overrun his home, thinking he was the last resort? Should he distance himself from the people?

Over the summer of 1862, in drafting the Emancipation Proclamation while at home at the Cottage, President Lincoln could look out over his back veranda and see downtown Washington DC in the distance.

Troops camped on the White House lawn, engaged in minor skirmishes or practice exercises, reminded the President that he was not nearly far enough removed from the decisions of the day. Out the windows of his library, facing the front of the cottage, he could see plainly the new National Cemetery, filling up with the newly dead unknown casualties of war.

The National Cemetery at the Soldiers Home, by Daniya Tamendarova

Lincoln pondered… as the bodies kept coming.

These two views are reflected in his choice of words.

Most of us, when we think of the Emancipation Proclamation, associate it with the freeing of all slaves.

There is, however, a back-story to this document, as we learned on our visit to his cottage.

For every President of the United States, the ultimate goal is to preserve the union; for Abraham Lincoln, he felt this weight of obligation to reunite the states and restore the fabric of the United States of America.

President Lincoln was torn.

What was right? Whose interests would be served by each alternative?

The National Cemetery at the Old Soldiers Home Washington DC

We have a letter, written by President Lincoln to Horace Greeley (Editor of the New York Tribune) that tells us about his heart-felt dilemma:

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution.
The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.”
… My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.
What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.
A. Lincoln.

Seeing that the issue had multiple sides and viewpoints, none of which were totally satisfactory, the President chose what could be termed “the least bad option”.

In the end, the Emancipation Proclamation discussed only the slaves in the Confederate states- those slaves would be freed. Technically, however, with the Confederacy, Mr. Lincoln was not actually their chosen leader and had no authority there. But it appears that he had considered all sides.

It’s easy to make arm-chair decisions from miles away from a problem, like Iraq and Syria for example. But when you get on the ground and see that the questions are about lives, just like yours and mine, the decisions get muddy and hard to make.

I’m thinking about our truculent politicians who seem to only have the next election on their minds.

With today’s issues, what would Lincoln do? From seeing his place of ideas,  I learned that:

  • Lincoln didn’t make decisions based on re-election demographics. He made choices with his heart, thinking of the humanity he pledged to serve, whether he personally agreed or not. That’s the only way our system works. (A good Life Lesson for us today, perhaps?)
  • He talked with people, not as a campaigner, but as a man among people. He used common sense, not soundbites. He worked behind the scenes without thought to getting the credit or scripting a photo-op.
  • He dealt with problems head on, not with the socialites (celebrities) of the day, not with an entourage. He rode back and forth from the White House to the Cottage everyday, and was shot at at least once, ruining a very good top hat in the process. But he continued, he led in the midst of war, in the midst of intense anger.
    (If we can’t be out among people today, maybe we are trying to solve the wrong problems?)


What Life Lessons impressed me at Lincoln’s Cottage?

  1. I can make the hard decisions in my family, for my friends and my neighborhood each day, rather than put it off on government intervention.
  2. I can support our leaders and encourage them to look at issues as Mr. Lincoln did- What is really in the best interest of the people- not those of the lobbyists, special interests, or partisan deal-making?
  3. I can strive to be a person of ideas and ideals; I can reclaim the principles of learning how to learn, how to think and problem solve, instead of relying only on electrons and batteries to tell me what others think.


So, the buildings Have you guessed what they are and where?

If not, here’s the answer.

These are part of the Old Soldiers’ Home in northwest Washington DC.

“The home was founded in the early 1850s by General Winfield Scott, for whom was named the main building next to the cottage” where Mr. Lincoln’s family stayed. (The cottage is located on the grounds of the Soldiers and Airmen’s Home, near the intersection of Park Place and Rock Creek Church Road in Northeast Washington.)”

General Winfield Scott knew we needed a place for our old soldiers to live when they became infirm after a life of service. It was the right thing to do.

He fought to establish a soldiers’ home for nearly 25 years. Congress approved the idea in 1851 but didn’t move to fund the project (sound familiar?).

In charge of American troops during the Mexican war, Scott now was considered an American hero. He returned with $150,000 that was paid to him by Mexico City, in lieu of ransacking. He paid off his troops, bought new supplies, and offered the remaining money to Congress to establish the Soldiers’ Home.

General Scott donated the rest to a cause he believed in: caring for our old soldiers… doing the right thing for those who need it most. He made tough decisions for those who needed answers.


Sources/ Related Reading:

Photo Credits:  National Cemetery-DC, Daniya Tamendarova; http://transplantedtatar.com (blog)
(Used with kind permission and full accreditation); All others my own.










One thought on “Expat Living: Keys To Tough Decisions When There Is No Right Answer

  1. Pingback: My Week In A Wheelchair: A New Lesson In Resilience? | Life Lessons

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