Where are our better angels who can help us cope with our nature’s flaws?

James W. Dolan

Just how much discouraging news can we take to undermine our confidence in the institutions, government and otherwise, that we hoped would continue the incremental progress we experienced as a nation since World War II. Despite periodic setbacks, which sometimes weakened our resolve, progress seemed inevitable.

Science and technology provided the assurance we could master the forces necessary to successfully manage the inevitable complications that accompany evolution. But technology, like any tool, has its limitations. It is only as good as those who invent, improve, manage, and apply it.

We can make things better but that does not necessarily translate into making ourselves better. It does not make us better human beings although it has the capacity to improve our understanding and performance. We are now able to develop the means to accomplish more complicated tasks than ever before. But we have not managed to understand or control those flaws in human nature that undermine and misdirect efforts to address the inequities so evident in the world or climate challenges that threaten the globe.

All one need do is look at the partisan dysfunction in the US Congress to see the distortions that exist as our representatives, at least in theory, struggle to first identify and then to achieve the common good. Ambition, greed, self-interest, and dishonesty easily overcome efforts to fairly acknowledge and balance government’s obligation to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

It’s not easy to achieve and sustain the common good; to balance, as best we can, the shared but variable inequities inherent in the human condition. However, if the “common good” is not the “common goal,” there is no chance we can even come close. For example, so long as we view the unrestricted right to own and carry firearms as protected by the Second Amendment, we will have to contend with murder and suicide rates, which are viewed by other nations as a self-inflicted tragedy.

Are we so consumed with “self” that we are incapable as a society to sacrifice something we may desire in order to benefit others? Or do we tend to see others as a threat and their gain as our loss? How do we transcend self-interest? How do we make it more inclusive? When does your joy become my joy and your pain my pain? When does more become excess? When does empathy require sacrifice? When does truth illuminate the dark corners of ignorance, distortion, and neglect?

There is an old song suggesting such yearnings are “written in the wind,” and perhaps they are. So consumed with self we cannot hear the sweet melodies that float in the silence of our souls, the hymns of inspiration, love, and devotion that often are not heard or are too easily ignored.

In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln invoked the “better angels of out nature” in calling upon the nation to avoid war. Regrettably, it sometimes appears that those “better angels” were casualties in the war that followed. While evident now in many of our aspirations, they fade in the fractious journey toward achievement.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.

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