On August 10, 2020, the above-the-fold Seattle Times headline read “U.S. hits 5 million confirmed virus cases, alarming Europe.” The piece went on to describe the unbelievable number of COVID 19 cases and resulting dismay and disbelief beyond our borders. A second article, “A COVID ‘silver lining,’” covered a report on the loosening of medical restrictions, allowing for increased on-phone consultations, including diagnosing, and prescribing. Staff reporter Scott Greenstone centered his item around the homeless population in the foothills of Mount Baker, a group that often finds it difficult to make their way to in-person clinic visits.
What caught my eye, my imagination, was the phrase “silver lining.” Dismaying news continues to be relentless. I’m starved for any bit of optimistic news, eager to hear affirmations of our better angels.
“Better angels” is defined as the morally upright or otherwise positive attributes of human character; the part of our nature that guides us toward friendship, unity, good conscience, lightness, and buoyancy of spirit. In other words, the potential for good in each one of us.
The saying can be traced back through centuries. In 1599, William Shakespeare used it in Sonnet 144, Nathanael Lee included it in his 1734 poem The Massacre of Paris, and William Guthrie penned the phrase in The Friends, A Sentimental History, in 1754. It is usually identified, though, with Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. March of 1861, President Lincoln was speaking to the country just a month before the start of the Civil War. He ended his remarks by saying:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely, they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Lincoln was speaking at the hardest of times, but he held unto his belief that our better nature could prevail. May that be so today.
Small actions illustrate larger truths. Three times during these COVID days, I’ve been visited by better angels. Our friends, Dick and Cherie, were over for Happy Hour. We were seated in our driveway, soaking up some early springtime and enjoying drinks and snacks. We must have looked quite happy, for several people honked and gave us thumbs-up as they drove by. One car stopped, and a woman hopped out. She greeted us by saying, “Just want to say you pick up my spirits. I work for a wine distributor, want to give you this bottle of wine to add to your celebration.” Then, without giving us her name or business information, off she drove.
Linda and I came home from a walk one day and discovered a handful of fresh cilantro on the chair outside our front door. The gift came anonymously, but it was pretty much a certainty it came from Doreen, our upstairs neighbor, who has a successful herb garden on her balcony. That was just one of the ways the three families here in our building have been watching over one another.
My third story. I regularly walk the waterfront at Zuanich Park. As I was strolling recently, a man walked toward me, a copious number of yellow roses held in one arm. He approached me, and said, “Would you like a rose?” At my “yes, thank you,” he handed me one of the long-stemmed flowers, smiled, and walked on. It was a delight to be surprised in such a joy-filled way.
The flower man caught people’s attention. I posted a photo of the rose on Facebook, and 104 people liked it, a large number of responses for one of my posts. The comments included, “What a great idea for making a brighter day for others…Probably helping a local business as well…Lucky you, you got hit by kindness.”
I don’t mean to trivialize the concept of better angels by relating them to gift giving. But, I do believe the three gift-givers were living into the potential for good that lives in all of us.
People are showing their best selves when they serenade outside retirement homes. We share love when birthdays are celebrated with drive-bys, and people rejoice in graduations when car after car honks and voices yell “Congratulations!” Fundamental to all of this: putting on a mask, even when wearing it seems hot, or sweaty, or causes glasses to fog up, demonstrating our concern for others.
In the months ahead, whenever it is we wrestle our way through this, may we dig deep inside ourselves to find, and energize, our better angels. Not to slide back into things as they were before (for we acknowledge so many flaws in what was) but to build a world of which our angels would approve.
The U.S. faced a crisis in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey battered Texas and Louisiana, causing 125 billion dollars in damages. Former President Jimmy Carter, speaking on behalf of Habitat for Humanity, said, “When waters rise, so do our better angels.” May it be so again.
Thank you, friend. I honor your better angel.