A Time to Heal: Let’s Embrace the Better Angels of Our Nature

“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.” —From Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural address March 4, 1861

We are living in such painful times. We’re in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic in which nearly 300,00 beloved family members have died from the Corona Virus. Hospitals are overwhelmed by pandemic patients. The divisiveness in our country has split us apart, almost to the point of civil war. We are threatened and challenged by racial justice unrest. Many American families face unemployment and food insecurity in one of the richest countries in the world. Our children are falling behind in school due to exclusive on-line learning. Due to the need to quarantine, family members cannot even comfort their dying loved ones or freely convene over traditional rituals of affiliation and love. Many of us cannot easily attend our churches, gyms, schools and social centers. In the midst of all this there is rampant suspicion, distrust and alienation from one another. We all know the suffering we are experiencing.

Love is always more powerful than hate. It is up to us to make a difference.Although dire, hope is not lost. This era isn’t the first time we’ve gone through such turmoil as a country and survived it. In his first inaugural address in 1861 President Abraham Lincoln tried to summon the strength of the American people by appealing to the better aspects of themselves to not devolve into outright civil war. He felt that people can heal from profound strife and divisiveness by summoning the best parts of themselves without resorting to violence and disunity. Unfortunately his hope was not immediately realized and resulted in a civil war. He tried again later in a speech to the Republicans in the Illinois House of Representatives in 1858. He warned that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Clearly such messages are very much needed once again today. We have been down this path before. Jon Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels (Random House, 2019) thoroughly documents the hope through and after turmoil if we evoke the better parts of ourselves.

Grief, division, racism, poverty and disease can all be healed if we work together and utilize the best parts of our humanity: compassion, kindness, science, and forgiveness of ourselves as we forgive others. I have seen this process happen repeatedly in my office over the last forty years. We are not powerless to grow from this ordeal as others have done. Love is always more powerful than hate. It is up to us to make a difference.

What will it take to heal our wounds?

In our brokenness the place to start is with hope, perspective and action. Let’s start with perspective. We have survived many similar horror stories in our national history and come out the better on the other end. The huge number of deaths of the Civil War taught us how to deal with handling mass deaths and grief. Long ago people didn’t understand grief. Family members wondered where their beloved dead went after they passed. Spiritualism and talking to the dead developed in this era. Eventually people learned after the civil war to understand grieving as a necessary and healthy part of life. Hence the spiritual life of people became a more prominent and ever-present part of American lives.

Facing other tragedies have given us hope. The massive inter-generational trauma of racism is still being worked out today for the better beyond the Civil Rights movement. The utter importance of human dignity is being affirmed in people of all colors. In fact Color has become less valued as a separator than the unity of our collective humanity. We are all of the same race—the human race. Kindness, listening, debunking stereotypes and affiliation show great promise in healing racism.

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The plague of 1918 resulted in our having a more thorough understanding of disease transmission and treatment. The very science of epidemiology was rooted in this pandemic and is what allows us to manage and eliminate it with a vaccine today. Undoubtedly none of us would have chosen these ways to learn about life. Fortunately, despite our misery, we have learned invaluable lessons.

Even in our current unresolved dilemma with electing a demagogue to lead our country there is much hope. Our global heroic and expert epidemiology has provided us with exceptionally effective and safe vaccinations as a way out of this plague in even less than one year. The American People have opted to affirm Democracy and be lead by a person of good character despite how nearly half of its citizens would choose otherwise. The possibility for racial justice, equal gender opportunity and overall tolerance of differences has never been greater. It remains for us to find ways to include and value those who would have chosen to do otherwise. Our challenge is massive but like other past challenges can be resolved if we can bring out the better angels of our nature and find ways to unite us all.

Let us not forget: We have what it takes to heal our worst wounds.

What action is required?

Although I don’t have all the answers to our current crisis I do know many things that will help heal us thanks to what I have learned from my clients over 40 years. Let’s examine common contrasting views our current crisis:

I cannot believe people these days. How can you vote for a dishonorable person for President? How can people walk around without masks as if there were no pandemic? How can I ever celebrate holidays with relatives who detest the Black Lives Matter movement? How can I ever be friendly with my neighbor who says the election was a fraud. He will never take down his political yard signs? How can I find peace in such a divided world?

Our election was a fraud. How could anyone not see what a great leader our current President is?! The only way that could happen is the ballot counting was corrupted. The Supreme Court will straighten things out. This whole pandemic is a hoax. Why wear masks when most people don’t get serious symptoms from this virus? We have drugs for everything and a vaccine just round the corner. No one is going to take away my freedom. Afterall we are Americans! We need to hold people personally responsible for their actions. Just look at what happened in Minneapolis with the looting and burning. This is what we can look forward to if we defund the police. There will be no peace if we embrace the radical left!

Every time you make a friend out of an enemy or at least try to with your better angel, you get closer to heaven and you like yourself even more.Ever heard of these perspectives before? Indeed you have. They represent extreme views from both sides of our cultural dialogue that left unresolved will keep us forever divided and weaker as a country. They are distancing views disguised as common sense. It’s quite tempting for each side to have unquestioning faith in its own position and to see the other side as deranged. Repeated patterns cause many of us to not only see the views as deranged but the people who have these views as off their rocker and untrustworthy. Divides like these cause social distrust, paranoia and trauma. I have seen many of these views in my years of couple therapy, especially in those with a lot of hopelessness and one step away from divorce. This is when I typically say, “Well at least we are making progress here!”

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Afterall passionate views show ardor for a relationship and is far better than apathy and detachment. At least these sides have something in common. What really keeps them apart is fear. For people to unite each side needs to realize the sanity and value of the other side. The place to start is to have enough humility to realize you are not the ultimate holder of all truth, thank God. You only hold some of the truth and you need the other side to get the whole picture.

For healing to occur you must be willing to listening to others who have different views from your own. Clearly some people may be abusive if you try to listen to them. Other people may be hopelessly unreachable no matter how hard you try to know them. They may see you as the enemy and not want to be open with you. Let these people be. Most people are not like that. So please don’t see others as the enemy. Even people who differ from you have many fine qualities and are worth knowing. Resist the urge to change others or argue. Approach others with curiosity, respect and a willingness to learn. If all you do is listen that will be good enough.

Allow time to heal and have faith in the magic of respect. Realize that you also must change if you want others to change. I have found in my clinical work that the most difficult people are often the ones I most need to hear from. Their point of views often startles and surprises me in the most helpful ways since I have not traveled to where they go. Look for what you have in common and erase judgments of other people. Then you will have a partial connection and your tension will greatly reduce. Many couples I have seen who once fought like cats and dogs are today joined at the hip and still somewhat disagree. Every time you make a friend out of an enemy or at least try to with your better angel, you get closer to heaven and you like yourself even more.

There are many more parts to healing than this discussion allows. Respecting differences is probably the best start. Other steps might include having national grief rituals like building a memorial wall for those who have died from the Corona Virus, donating to food shelves (Second Harvest and Hallie Q-Brown Food Bank) and welcoming people of different races and cultures into your life. You will feel much less alone in this world and way more trust in others. Ultimately the person you heal the most is yourself and you will be amazed at the result.

“I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do no save each other very often. But I am aware that we save each other some of the time…The miracle on which one’s unsteady attention is focused is always the same, however it may be stated or however it may remain unstated. It is the miracle of love, love strong enough to guide or drive one into the great estate of maturity, or, to put it another way, into the apprehension and acceptance of one’s own identity.” —James Baldwin.

John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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