At Joe Biden’s inauguration, he used the phrase “our better angels [of our nature]”. His exact quote was,
“Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks, our ‘better angels’ have always prevailed. In each of these moments, enough of us came together to carry all of us forward.”
The first time I remember hearing that phrase was about a year ago when I was walking around Seward Park, an old-growth forest near my house. I was listening to a podcast when I heard the phrase “the better angels of our nature.” It made me think about what my better angels are. I always connect with people at the park — I say hi, wave, smile, share appreciation for a heron or an eagle. I love the park and the people there. I love the trees and the birds and the turtles. But I was aware that day how, though I did smile (we weren’t yet wearing masks outside), nod or wave to different people, there was also a pallor of despair, like a persistent grey cloud, stalking me. It was the beginning of the pandemic and everyone was on high alert.
I remember the feeling I had so clearly that day. As I walked around the park, prone to constant sniffles, I pulled out my hanky to blow my nose and a man walking towards me quickly made a b-line to the other side of the path. He wasn’t trying to be rude or unkind. I didn’t blame him. All of us were just starting to adapt to this new way of life. But I felt a sting, a little pang of rejection.
We are now deeply into this sustained change of life. And we are changed. The four years of living in a country run by a man who disregards our environment and humanity in so many ways has taken a toll on me. COVID-19 may have tipped me over the edge. I worry about people I love. I worry about the people living in tents all over our city. I worry about my old parents and your old parents and my friends who have auto-immune diseases. I worry about my daughter and my nephews and nieces and all the young people who are struggling.
I worry that living so isolated from each other over the last several months has muted our better angels. At the park, when the man crossed away from me on the path, I totally understood why he did that, but as I look back on it now, I can see that it was the beginning of several months of micro-actions like these that have been happening for almost a year. We have all been doing them. The news is telling us to steer clear of each other, to stay home, to worry.
When I got home that day almost a year ago, I looked up “the better angels of our nature” and learned that this phrase was used by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address. Psychologist Steven Pinker wrote a book with the same title and uses the phrase as a metaphor for four human motivations — empathy, self-control, the “moral sense,” and reason. (1) We tend to lose focus, especially in times like these, of the innate goodness of ourselves and each other. And when you look at all the little distancing micro-actions we’re all making, how could we not?
What I needed then and what I need now is to feel calm and at ease. I want to come back to connecting to other people with empathy, self-control, moral sense, and reason. Where do we turn when the majority of people in our midst are suffering from the same anxieties and fears that we are?
The only thing that makes sense to me is to turn outwards instead of inwards — to look towards those people, even if they are turning away. We can still stay safe. We can still follow the CDC recommendations, but we can find ways to connect. Share food with your neighbors. Don’t buy all the toilet paper. Check-in on your friends who live alone. Tell your kids to be kind to their classmates in the chat rooms at school.
And helping actually helps. For the past several months, every Friday, my partner Nancy and I have volunteered at the senior center near our house. A handful of us prepare hot lunches for close to two hundred homebound seniors. It is one of the highlights of my week. A few weeks ago the director of the senior center gave the volunteers letters to take to a local hospital to get vaccinated. Originally Nancy rejected the letter, “Can’t someone else use this more than us?” she asked.
“You are working in close contact with others doing this work and we want you to be safe. Get vaccinated,” she told us.
Yesterday we took our letters and went to get vaccinated. As we waited in line, standing on blue dots six feet away from each other, holding our important clipboards, wearing our numbered stickers indicating what group we were in, I felt so grateful to be there. I felt like the seniors must feel every day when the volunteer knocks on their door with a hot lunch. I was being given a gift and it made me feel safe and loved.
When it was finally our turn in line I went to one vaccination station and Nancy to the other. We each got our shots, mine in my left arm and her in her right, and then they ushered us into an auditorium to wait fifteen minutes for any side effects.
As we waited, again in chairs spaced six-feet apart from each other, I said to Nancy, “This feels surprisingly calm and easy.” It wasn’t what I was expecting. I had imagined desperate people clawing their way to the front of the line, pushing ahead of old women in wheelchairs, conning the staff into giving them a shot. But there was none of that. It was serene, calm, and everyone was kind.
The nurses ushering us through the line were helpful. They assisted people in filling out their forms, they leaned in to hear the quiet voices of the elders, they smiled and gently laid a hand on backs or waists or arms to guide us to our destination.
When I finally sat down across from the nurse who would vaccinate me, she was so happy, even joyful to be giving me the vaccine. Yes, she and her colleagues did hundreds of shots each day, arm after arm, weighed down in their PPE gear. But they weren’t burdened. They were activating their better angels and connecting with all of these grateful people. When Nancy told her nurse to “hang in there,” her nurse replied, “Oh, thanks, but I’m good. I love this. I really love it.”
On the drive home from getting vaccinated Nancy thanked me for getting her involved at the senior center. It is one of her great joys in life, she told me. Mine too, I told her back. Just like the nurses giving the vaccines, to be able to connect with people by giving, by helping, enables the giver to feel a sense of hope and joy. It’s so simple. That giving connection feeds the heart and soul of both the giver and the receiver. It’s a win-win.
The despair is real these days. There is pain and stress and grief everywhere we look, but there is also generosity and love and hope. It doesn’t come by sitting and waiting for change to come. It comes when we activate our better angels. And, just like Joe Biden said almost two weeks ago, if enough of us come together, activating our better angels, it will carry all of us forward.