On March 4, 1861, newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln delivered his inaugural address to the American people. The speech came on the edge of a breaking point between North and South. Several southern states had already seceded from the Union, and the two sides seemed to be hurtling inevitably toward civil war.
During his address, President Lincoln appealed to what he called the “better angels of our nature.” Obviously Lincoln didn’t have President Trump’s gift for oratory, but I still find this to be a profound and instructive quote. Lincoln was talking about the dichotomy of human beings. He was talking about every individual person’s capacity for good and for evil. He was asking his fellow Americans to put aside hatred, greed, animosity, ego, defensiveness, pettiness, and all of their destructive tendencies and instead to honour the better part of their character – generosity, affection, compassion, empathy, cooperation, love.
I think about the better angels of my nature a lot lately. I’ve even begun to adopt the phrase as kind of a mantra, especially when the darker angels of my nature want to feed. You know those angels. The ones that are jealous. The ones that are angry. The ones that want to blame other people. The ones that are spiteful. The ones that are greedy. The ones that want to gossip. The ones that want to put people down. The ones that judge. The ones that are violent. The ones that have to win all the time.
We all have these angels in us. Each of us is capable of hurting other people through our words and deeds, and often we do in moments of weakness or thoughtlessness. I certainly have. I’m still tempted by my darker angels all the time, but I’m learning to remember my better angels and try to listen to them. Why? Because life is happier and more peaceful when I do.
But it’s not always easy.
Somebody cuts you off in traffic and you react. A finger. A curse word. An altercation at the next stop light.
Someone wants to share gossip about someone else and you’re eager to listen.
Someone tries a creative project and your jealousy makes you want to put it down or sabotage it.
Your spouse does that thing he or she does and you lash out.
Your kid does something wrong and you overreact.
Your rage boils over for no good reason.
You judge someone for no good reason.
You tear someone else down to build yourself up.
Your darker angels want to indulge their addiction to drugs or alcohol or sex.
You screw up and believe the lie your darker angels tell you that you’re no good and a failure.
You put yourself in that negative energy and it affects you. It’s seductive. Even if there’s no direct conflict because of it – no parking lot brawls or bedroom screaming matches or cars wrapped around telephone poles – you have to process that energy and it takes something out of you. If you indulge that bitterness, if you sit in that darkness, it will stain you.
Believe me, I know.
But doing better things, saying better things, thinking better things can lift you up. Being generous to people feels good. Being generous about people feels good. Supporting people feels good. Getting along with people feels good. Detaching from negativity feels good.
No, that doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat. No, that doesn’t mean you have to let people take advantage of you. No, that doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for yourself.
It’s about energy. Negative energy is caustic. Positive energy is nurturing. If you feed the better angels of your nature, you’ll have less conflict and more peace. You’ll simply feel better and so will the people around you.
So if you find yourself feeling or doing or saying negative things, maybe stop for a second and think about the better angels of your nature. Are you feeding them or feeding your darker angels? How does that feel? What are the results?
If you won’t take my word for it, perhaps consider the lessons of history. President Lincoln’s high minded challenge ultimately failed. The darker angels ruled and within weeks of his inauguration, shots were fired and the American Civil War was soon in full rage. Over the next four years, more than 600,000 Americans were killed, and on May 14, 1865, Lincoln himself was shot in a theatre by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
We can do and be better.