Abraham Lincoln, who called us to be touched by the “better angels of our nature” in a moment of crisis.
Today, the final chapter in our selection of the 46th president of the United States will unfold. It’s been a long, dark chapter in our history and it’s easy to give in to cynicism, anger and fear. It often feels like these three elements dominate our culture, having exiled what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” to a naïve past. But our better angels aren’t in exile, even if our current president and a good portion of the country are deaf to their pleas. They are all around us and they’ve helped us transcend dark times before — including those literally called the Dark Ages.
We need to do more than win an election. We have to reset the essential optimism that has always defined the West.The importance of a prevailing cultural optimism cannot be overstated. If we can abandon our petty tribalism, restrain our fears and unshackle ourselves from outdated strategic thinking we can renew that optimism, which has fueled every great achievement, every essential bit of progress we’ve made for two thousand years. We live in challenging times to be sure, but so have many others who came before us. No doubt they sometimes lost faith, wondered whether their challenges were so much greater than those faced by prior generations, whether they were truly up to the task of building a better future. They may have asked themselves whether things had gone too far awry to roll back their problems. They may have thought that their resources and abilities seemed so feeble when compared with the mountain of troubles they faced.
Thomas Cahill, in the fifth volume of his series “The Hinges of History”, talks about people in the Middle Ages and the often-unexpected ways in which history unfolds. He recounts some of the “essential moments when everything was at stake, when the mighty stream that became Western history was in ultimate danger and might have divided into a hundred useless tributaries or frozen in death or evaporated altogether.”
These threats did not overwhelm us, Cahill says, because “the great gift-givers, arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation, and even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found.” Prior ages produced such gift-givers at the right moments and in the right places. It’s reasonable to conclude that our age has done the same. Our interconnected, real-time, 24/7 world in theory should make these gift-givers easier to spot. In practice, the noise of our social media streams, persistently pinging phones and tsunami of selfies makes our better angels harder to spot and far more challenging to focus on — which means we have to look harder and point them out for each other.
More recently, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, gains made against ancient evils — poverty, disease, war and human slavery — enabled considerable improvements in public health, living standards, literacy, equality and basic Human dignity. These advances created a positive feedback loop that persisted through most of this period in Europe and America, feeding an upward cycle that made these improvements possible but also powered a spirit of hopefulness and confidence of which we in the 21st Century are so badly in need. This period was, of course, far from perfect, and the culture of the 19th Century retained — even nourished — conquest, racism and gender inequality, and other inequities. We continue to struggle with the legacies of this era’s worst instincts as well as its best. But the “benevolent progress” spirit of the age is worth remembering and reconstructing.
Thinking of people in such times, I’m often drawn to study the darkest moments of a particular period. I’m fascinated, for example, by the 1930s up to 1941–a time when right-wing populists were on the rise, the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis was being cemented and it seemed obvious to many observers that the future belonged to the fascists. Their regimes were strong and purposeful, in contrast to the indecisiveness and timidity of the democracies. These dark hours are compelling because we know how this story turns out. Free peoples and democratic systems have repeatedly proven themselves stronger and more resilient than their enemies had imagined — a lesson that Mussolini and Hitler learned the hard way. The struggle was not easy, and many twists of fate helped our civilization step back from the abyss. But the challenge was turned back. Times like this also provide us a cultural and historical mirror — a way to examine what we’ve become and decide whether we like it, a chance to decide whether we are worthy of our aspirations, to reaffirm what our civilization stands for — in essence, why it deserves to be saved.
A hundred years ago, the First World War put a quick end to the West’s faith in “benevolent progress.” It badly eroded some of the best attributes of the West, its optimism and hopefulness. This disillusionment, product of a global calamity that had killed 11 million people, created ripe conditions for even deeper despair as the 1918 flu pandemic consumed us, undermining faith in the ability of our institutions to combat it. Many people thought it was the end of the world.
But it wasn’t. Our forerunners got through their crisis with far fewer tools, far less information and far less understanding than we have today. The people of the Middle Ages prepared the ground for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; the World War I generation invented public health systems around the world and the global discipline of epidemiology that enabled public health professionals to uncover COVID-19 in our own time as early as they did; the next generation, weakened by economic depression and political infighting, still rolled back the fascists. The world that last generation built was designed specifically to avoid a third, even more cataclysmic world war. And until recently, it worked. It’s this legacy, centuries in the making, that is in danger of unravelling. It was built by ordinary and extraordinary gift-givers, amplifying the better angels of our nature at the right time, in the right place and in the right way.
Like them, we will get through this very difficult moment and we will be better for the experience. The gift-givers are already here. Whether or not this is another “hinge” of history will be for historians to decide, but we can all be forgiven for feeling like much hinges on what we do in the days and months ahead. If this is true — I for one believe it to be — then it is up to each of us to be gift-givers. Some of our gifts may be great, most will be modest, but the important part is that we offer them. This article, for example, is intended to be part of my modest contribution to gift-giving.
We need to help each other spot the gift-givers through all the noise and chaff of modern life and amplify their work. Some are more obvious than others. The doctors, nurses and thousands of others who make our hospitals work have been tireless in fighting a pandemic that long ago exhausted the Administration’s attention span. Underappreciated bus and truck drivers, public sector, utility and critical manufacturing workers, and many others have suddenly been recognized as “essential” to a functioning society. The professional public health officials, many of whom have endured threats and harassment, have nonetheless continued to do their jobs in an effort to keep the rest of us safe. Previously obscure election officials have been working diligently to ensure the integrity of our votes in the face of foreign attacks and suppression efforts at home. And not least, nearly 100 million Americans have already exercised their franchise, with millions more standing in line to do so today. There are countless others out there, thinking, planning, doing the things we need to build a better future — we should find them, amplify them, be them. Crowdsourcing the gift-givers can be part of our collective generosity.
Let’s get on with it. But today, you can start by voting.