Angels Among Us

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?