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The Day I Forgot Myself

Dr. Peale reflects on an unforgettable Memorial Day and offers a tip for when you are feeling nervous and anxious.

Norman Vincent Peale

When I arrived at Prospect Park in Brooklyn on that clear Memorial Day afternoon, I had never seen so many people in one spot. A policeman estimated the crowd at 50,000.

I was a young pastor just out of seminary and had been designated by the American Legion as their chaplain for King’s County, New York. My function on this day—some years before World War II—was to give the invocation at a traditional Memorial Day ceremony in the park. Or so I thought. I proceeded to the platform and introduced myself to the speaker, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of the late President Teddy Roosevelt. Then I picked up the program. To my consternation it read, “Norman Vincent Peale—address.”

Address! I looked again. The word was “address,” and it was listed to come just before Colonel Roosevelt’s speech.

With nothing prepared, I panicked. “Colonel, there’s been a big mistake here. I was asked to come and give the invocation, and here I’m listed for an address.” I must have looked as wide-eyed and frightened as I felt.

He studied me for a moment. “If you’re down for an address, I guess you’ll have to give one.” “But I can’t, colonel. You have to prepare to give an address. I just can’t do it.”

The colonel pointed to a reserved section of seats occupied entirely by women. “Those are gold-star mothers,” he said. “Every one of them lost a son in the war. There must be something you can say that will be helpful to them. If you’re scared, it’s probably because you’re thinking of yourself. Well, stop thinking of yourself and think courage instead.”

I drew a deep breath and said. “All right, colonel, I’ll try. But it’s going to be a short speech.” He smiled. “That won’t upset anybody.”

So I asked the Lord to help me forget myself, my nervousness and my inadequacy so I could think about those mothers. I picked out one with a large blue hat and imagined her hurt and loneliness. When I stood up to speak, I tried to be a channel for God’s love to flow out to these women.

When I finished, the colonel leaned over and clapped me on the knee. “Great job.”

The only great thing about it was what I learned from the colonel that day. When in a tight spot, forget self. Think courage.

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