Our Better Angels
Listen to “Our Better Angels” by Fred Smith
One of the regular features of the show “Hee-Haw” was four of the characters sitting on hay bales with moonshine jugs singing:
Gloom, despair, and agony on me
Deep, dark depression, excessive misery
If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all
Gloom, despair, and agony on me
Gloom and despair were funny then. We laughed along with the audience. Today, we might have a series featuring mainly gloom and despair with a moment of comic relief. Well, we do, don’t we? We call it the news. It is gloom and despair from around the world. Every traffic accident in rural Mongolia, break-in of a convenience store somewhere unknown to us, and the small march for a nondescript cause is served up to us with only pauses for commercial breaks promoting drugs with disclaimers that their use can also expose us to serious, sometimes fatal events — including infections, kidney failure, lymphoma and other types of cancer. That’s in addition to the round by round slugfest going on in Washington. It’s hard to sing along with Mr. Rogers that, “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”
Neil Postman in “Amusing Ourselves To Death” writes, “Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. It is a flood of irrelevance about which we can do nothing. The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing..because the whole world became the context for news. Everything became everyone’s business.” We know everything and are left incapable of doing anything about what we know. The result is an increasing sense of impotence leading to anger and even rage.
Gloom and despair, right? Well, it might be but for people like David Blankenhorn and his organization, Better Angels. In Tyler last week, David was actually encouraging by talking about the disparity between what the media reports and what is the case in scores of communities around the country. “We are less divided than we are told we are.” This comes from his experience in working with over 8,000 members of Better Angels meeting on any given day somewhere in the United States. Evenly balanced with both “Red and Blue” participants engaged in workshops teaching each other how to listen and speak to people whose political views are different from their own, the goal is not persuading others but understanding and respect. The challenge, of course, is overcoming the way we have caricatured the other side. Worse, we scorn them and the great enemy of understanding, “isn’t the conflict of ideas but the mutual contempt with which the contest is waged.” As one moderator says in The Atlantic, “Our job here today is to learn how you maintain, or create, a good relationship with people even though you don’t agree with them…We’re not here to learn how to convince each other of some political agenda.”
Like many, I am skeptical of the spread of civil conversation organizations with missions to simply get us talking with each other. They seem to attract only moderates open to talking with other moderates but not sitting down with those openly opposed to each other. That, perhaps more than anything, is what encourages me about the work of Better Angels. They recruit those who resist meeting with their polar opposites. But somehow it is working. I know that relationships typically don’t go to scale but the prospect of 100,000 people learning to have conversations with their enemies instead of repeating the worst about them is bound to change the climate in which we live.
I don’t know that David would consider himself an ambassador of reconciliation as Paul does in 2 Corinthians. However, what if that were our claim to fame? What if we were agents of reconciliation working to reduce rivalries, contempt, conspiracies, and mistrust? Again, it does not mean everyone agrees or only finds the lowest common denominator but there would be more of what Lincoln termed the “better angels of our nature” than there is now. It did not keep him from fighting but it kept him from contempt. It kept him from hatred. It kept him from destroying the enemy at the end of the war.
David closed with, “Everyone thinks the stakes are too high not to fight. Fighting, and winning by whatever means necessary is what is urgent, the demand of maturity. But what if this is precisely wrong? What if fighting is the childish way? What if the tough-minded thing is to practice love?”
Yes, what if?
Be an angel and purchase “Where The Light Divides” here.