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  • Writer's pictureKaren L Kurtz

A time for our better angels

Updated: May 20

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.

-Joe Biden, 46th US President

On March 4,1861, "these United States" (as people commonly referred to the Union at that time) faced the abyss of civil war. Seven states had already seceded when Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address to a divided nation from the steps of the partially built Capitol. The handwritten drafts of his speech have been archived. Historians have noted the changes Lincoln made to the wording as he crafted his speech. There is a note from his secretary of state, William Seward, suggesting that Lincoln add a line about "the guardian angel of the nation." Lincoln apparently recognized the potent imagery of that phrase but then made it his own in a much more powerful final line for his speech:

"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every heart and hearth-stone, 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."

Never has it been a more relevant time to bring this speech forward. Lincoln's message was a soul-stirring appeal for the better angels of our nature to again touch the mystic chords of memory, from which swell the chorus of the Union―a unity forged at great cost to the early patriots, inspired by a vision of a government by the people, for the people.

Joe Biden invoked the imagery of "our better angels," infused with the meaning Lincoln gave to that phrase as being something that is within our own natures (a hopeful thought!) The impactful part of Biden's message, for me, is the acknowledgement that the opposite--our darkest impulses--are also part of our own natures. The constant battle between the light and the dark has always existed within each of us, and it always will. It is a battle which must be brought to consciousness.

It's when we deny that we have a dark nature within ourselves that it gets projected onto whoever is the convenient 'other.' This is the gravest danger of our time: our refusal to look at the dark natures within ourselves―our prejudices, our greed, our ambition at any cost, our blind eye to the sufferings of others, and our destruction of our planet, for starters. If we look deeply into our recesses we'll find even darker impulses.

It is difficult to look at the darkness within ourselves. It is so much easier to project it onto others, instead. When our eyes see such evil in others, they are the eyes of a very righteous part of ourselves. We have the mistaken belief that those haughty judgements come from our better angels. They do not.

Paradoxically, our better angels do battle with both our darkest impulses and the self-righteous attitudes that feel contempt for darkness. The divisiveness in our nation is simply a reflection of what has become so polarized inside of ourselves.

So where do the better angels of our nature prevail? They are found where we least expect them to be. . .humbly standing between our inner polarized natures, knowing that what we've projected onto others is also a part of ourselves. It is where our better angels stand―in that more compassionate, receptive place between our polarized attitudes―that healing is possible and unity within our nation and within ourselves may be restored.

~K L Kurtz

(photo: U of Guelph Arboretum 01.23.21 by Paul Benedetto)


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