What are better angels? Disparate thinkers such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and scientist and author, Steven Pinker both refer to them; King, in a call for unity, urged Americans to summon their better angels, and more recently, Pinker titled his 2011 book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
And on Saturday, in his acceptance speech, President-elect Biden said, “Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses. It is time for our better angels to prevail.” Better angels is an idiom, a metaphor that addresses the morally upright and otherwise principled attributes of human character that have evolved from the wild-at-heart too often ferocious and too often timid living system with which we are born.
In the same positive manner, Marilynne Robinson, award winning novelist and essayist, wrote in the 10/09/2020 New York Times an article headlined, Don’t Give Up on America. She believes that this country is not just an idea. It’s a family. Here, said Robinson, “we are asked to see one another in the light of a singular inalienable worth that would make a family of us if we let it.”
Though 244 years have passed since the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the pathway to such inclusivity is not well lit. Let me tell you what I mean. To make the American experiment in democracy and autonomy viable, each of us must travel the obstacle-strewn road of our inherited conditions and circumstances. We are not necessarily born to be good citizens nor a natural fit for democracy and inclusion.
And our better angels? For the most part, what we call better angels begin as visceral impulses, primeval feelings that happen without thinking. It is up to each one of us to transform them—to muster, activate, curate, practice and domesticate these gut emotions so that we may exercise diligence in service to the obligations that accompany our freedoms.
In the early days of our democracy, unruly hooligans, irredeemable murderers and callous exploiters were numerous, and in an extraordinary example of tradition-bound willful ignorance, women and minorities were not even a part of the equation.
Nonetheless, some men did assemble a congress and after rancorous disagreement did construct a declaration of independence in 1776 and a constitution ratified in 1788. These documents (and their correspondent actions, of course) were about the self-government required by each and every one of us in service of democracy, in service of a land of the free—a people no longer beholden to a monarchy.
But now, just as then, this vast family is not perfect. In its midst is the still unequal treatment of women and minorities, the still poverty-stricken families who provide much of this country’s labor and, of course, the still unruly hooligans and criminals mentioned above.
Robinson says that she is loyal to this country in ways that make of her a pragmatist. "If someone is hungry, feed him. He will be thirsty, so be sure he has good water to drink.” Most of us are Robinson-described pragmatists, willing to lend a hand, pray for a neighbor’s sick child, assist a busy teacher, clean up after a fire or tornado and help pass measures designed to improve the quality of life of everyone in the community.
Despite the tumultuous times, we should stand back and from this larger perspective observe this American experiment in autonomy and democracy. What conclusions do we draw if we do some thinking? If we think it through? With a pencil or keyboard at hand. How is the experiment going? Where do you stand in the matter?
Democracy and autonomy are victories to be won. Over and over again. They must be renewed and recreated against the forces of ignorance and arrogance, of oversized egos and wanton license, of rage and contempt, of cruelty and despair. As I see it, this effort to see how the long march of history has actually transpired, and how we can wholeheartedly advance it, is the means to satisfaction, meaning, hope and affinity.
P.S. I am leading the last Planning Workshop of 2020 this coming weekend, November 13, 14, 15 on Zoom. If you’d like to apply, please contact Jean.