Finding Our Better Angels

 “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 will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” ~ Abraham Lincoln (First Inaugural Address) 

But where are those better angels?

It is said when Lincoln was preparing his First Inaugural Address that William Seward, his Secretary of State, suggested he end with a prayer asking God to send down a guardian angel to save the country. Lincoln rejected the idea out of hand. He thought the nation must save itself, not by looking to the outside for help but by summoning the power of the “better angels” of the citizens of both North and South.

Sadly, those angels were never summoned and weeks later the Civil War commenced.

So what works here? Why do we have such difficulty summoning our better angels?

That question has plagued humankind since the dawn of time and perhaps is better left for theologians to answer. However, what history records is clear: 

  • Passion regularly breaks bonds of affection,
  • Mystic chords of memory often forget,
  • Dark angels mesmerize human beings.

My own experience is that it’s easy for me to summon my dark angel. When I look around I find I’m not alone. There is something in our collective unconscious that separates us from our goodness. 

Here’s my own first recollection.

I was in the fourth grade when I first heard Lincoln’s Inaugural. At the time I was waging war with Steven, a kid on my block.

He once had been my friend but now he was my enemy.

One afternoon I had lined up on my porch my prized possessions — my 50 plastic army men. It had taken me a year to collect them and finally my collection was complete.

For whatever reason I’d left them unattended one afternoon and when I returned I discovered someone had cut the legs off of all 50. I knew who’d done it; he’d done before to his own army men. It was Steven, better known as “Peg Leg” by the kids in the neighborhood.

I was consumed with rage, my mind, heart and soul screamed for revenge. All I could think about, all I would consider, was how to get even.

Turning the other cheek, in my state of mind, it was out of the question. I was firmly in the grip of darkness — and I knew it.

  • I knew what I was thinking was wrong.
  • I knew what I wanted was evil.
  • I knew I didn’t care.

My anger was deep, my passions were hot, my conscience buried in my fury. Damn the consequences! An eye for an eye!

I was going to war — over toy soldiers.

It would commence on the Fourth of July at the annual fireworks display at Steven’s house. All the boys would be there and I knew he kept his own collection of army men in a box in his backyard.

I came armed with a pocket full of 4-inch firecrackers (small bombs) and when his dad lit the first Roman candle I stealthily dropped my firecrackers into his box and blew his toy soldiers to smithereens.

I’d taken my revenge.

But strangely, I felt only remorse, no satisfaction. He was devastated, the others were devastated, and in the end I was devastated. Now we had no toy soldiers — we’d destroyed them all.

Steven and I were never friends again. His family soon moved away. I was left with my shame, guilt and remorse, which I carried for the next 30 years. It was only when I worked my 9th Step that I found any closure. I penned Steven a letter and apologized for destroying his toy soldiers.

Finally, 30 years later, I got Lincoln’s message. 

If I don’t summon my better angels they’ll never come. The problem is whenever I’m threatened or frightened my first instinct is to summon my dark angel.

The truth is I have a choice. I’ve always had a choice.

In Native American lore, a grandfather tells his grandson:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil –- he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good –- he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”

The old man simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Just a thought…


Copyright © 2021 Patrick J. Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.

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