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The Better Angels of Our Nature

One of the things I inherited from my grandmother Sally is weepy eyes and a constantly runny nose when the weather is cold. For about ten months out of every year I keep a hanky in my sleeve or my coat pocket. Whenever I am outside I dab my nose and my eyes constantly.


Today when I was walking around Seward Park which I do as often as I can, I pulled out my hanky to blow my nose and a man walking towards me crossed clearly to the other side of the path. I don't blame him. The culture that has evolved with Coronavirus is worrisome to some and completely paralyzing to others. I fall intermittently somewhere in between, but mostly towards paralysis. I realize that these 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 seems to be what has tipped me over the edge. I worry about people I love. I worry about the mentally ill homeless man I walk by on Capitol Hill. I worry about my old parents and your old parents and my friends who have auto-immune diseases.


In a podcast I was listening to during my walk today I heard the phrase "the better angels of our nature" and 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 Seward Park and the people there. I love the trees and the birds and the turtles. But I was aware today how, though I did smile and nod or wave to different people, there was also a pallor of despair, like a persistent grey cloud, stalking me.


My worry and occasional paralysis from events of recent days and weeks has muted my better angels. When the man crossed away from me on the path,  I totally understood why he did that, but it got me thinking about what micro-actions like these do to us over a sustained period of time. We are all doing them. The news is telling us to steer clear of each other, to stay home, to worry. And yes, we have to worry, but this constant state of mental-emotional hijack is unsustainable. It's unsustainable for me and I fear it is unsustainable for our society.


When I got home I looked up "the better angels of our nature" and learned that this phrase was used by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address. Renowned psychologist Steven Pinker wrote a book with that 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 how could we not? My daughter was informed that she is no longer supposed to high five the opposing team after games. People in the drug store are competing for the ingredients to make DIY hand sanitizer.


What do I want? I want to feel calm again. I want to come back to connecting 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? The only thing that makes sense is to turn outwards instead of inwards. 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 twelve rolls of toilet paper. Check in on your friends who live alone. Tell your kids to be kind to their classmates.


And helping actually helps. Yesterday when I was walking up Madison I watched a man in a wheelchair ask a guy to help him cross potholed Ninth Avenue and the guy rushed by, shaking his head "no". As I crossed, I knew the man would ask me too. I contemplated what it would mean to put my bare palms on his wheelchair handles, but then I did it anyway. I pushed him across the street, got him up the curb and turned back up the hill. I made an effort to keep my hands away from my face until I could wash them again. But for that moment after helping that man I wasn't worrying. I was connecting with one of the better angels of my nature and I felt like everything would be okay.

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