Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Our Better Angels: Sunday musings…3/15/2020

Steven Pinker’s breakthrough, at least from a commercial standpoint, was a book about human nature entitled “Our Better Angels”. It’s a few years old and I confess that I’ve skipped over it and instead have started his newer book, “Enlightenment Now” at the suggestion of Bill Gates and his annual reading list. (Gates calls it his favorite book of all time). As an aside I’m also reading “Fewer, Richer, Greener” by Siegel, a similar data driven thesis about our world being better than popular, perhaps prevailing sentiment.

Anyway, in “Our Better Angels” Pinker describes a world in which there has been a dramatic and meaningful decrease in violence (wars, uprisings, genocides, etc.) despite sentiment to the contrary. He posits that exceptions to this trend get disproportionate coverage in the press and on social media, creating a false reality that the opposite (that the world is more violent) is true. Further, he points out that at the most personal level the entirely human traits of reason and empathy have made the world kinder and safer at both the 3 and 30 foot level.

For quite some time now I have observed this in my daily travels, both at work as a physician and around the various towns of my “civilian” life. We cannot discount the effect of “othering”, the process by which the bitter and the bigoted seek to make their targets something less than fellow humans in order to justify their prejudice. But this, too, is likely far less prevalent in reality than it seems it is given the reporting we see (although “othering” and prejudice in all of their forms are loathsome and have no place in our societies). No, what I see as I move through a life that brings me into contact with people of all walks of life is a people who bear no ill toward their fellow travelers. Indeed, a people who, given the chance, choose to do acts of kindness both large and small.

What will we see over the next weeks and months in the time of Covid-19? Well, we will surely see silly, even stupid stuff judging by my Twitter feed this morning (people in bars, cattle-car crowding in airport Customs lines). There will be folks who will say stuff that will make you roll your eyeballs right out of their sockets (too many examples to pick one). Some will seek to profit from the pandemic (how about that knucklehead who bought 17,000 bottles of disinfectant and jacked up the price? Got his comeuppance he did. Maybe we should let Amazon/EBay handle the insulin market). Even more distasteful will be those who choose to use the pending upheaval for political gain (Really? Somehow we’re gonna use this global emergency to win an election?). Even our Best Angels cannot avoid the tiny number of folks who see only themselves, even when doing so is so much more damaging than it might have been last week, or last month, or last year.

But these will not be the majority of who and what we see now, regardless of what we see and read and hear from whatever sources we use to gather information about our worlds. No, the majority of who and what we will see is people who do the right thing. People who choose to be kind and understanding, who offer gestures of both in ways big and small that may be visible but will as often go unobserved. For sure there will be more of these acts of kindness now in a time when they are needed; our Better Angels will respond now because now is when we need them. We will find that things like watching a child or dropping off some groceries have been going on under the radar for, like, ever; the Better Angel within all of us will simply be more aware of the chance to help, to provide. It could be a tiny as opening the minivan door for the Dad carrying groceries and a toddler in the grocery store parking lot, as subtle as not buying toilet paper because you are set for a couple of weeks at home, or as grand as learning that you have recovered from the virus, you are at least temporarily immune, and you take every extra shift they’ll give you at work, wherever work may be.

9/11 showed Americans that we can rally around a common cause. Rally around each other. Looking back, with the exception of the greater NYC area, rallying as a nation did not require a terrific degree of sacrifice. Certainly not like those borne by our nation during our great wars or times like the Great Depression. Now, when it’s hard, when sacrifice will be asked of all, now is the time to seek the Better Angel within each of us. I’m getting to be an old guy now, and maybe I suffer from a kind of sentimentality brought on by my stage of life (rather than the cynicism of so many of my Dad’s buddies at a similar stage), but the more I look the more Angels I see around me. The more closely I look the more of what I see is kindness. Understanding. Caring.┬áNow is the time to seek the Better Angel within.

I see you. I know you. I see the Angel within you. I know that Our Better Angels will prevail. Our Better Angels will triumph.

I’ll see you next week…

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