The story behind the Wayne Kirkpatrick classic
“BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE”
(recorded by Susan Ashton)
Human Beings… Becoming
I love to explore the past. History fascinates me; by using the 360 degrees of 20/20 hindsight, we mortals can actually come close to seeing ourselves the way God sees us– objectively.
Requiring only the desire to do so, we are able to step back and view the big picture of Time. Examining people and events from that God-like perspective enables us to connect the truth we know today, with what transpired back then. Such unbiased exploration looks beneath the surface, past the prejudice of the era, allowing the actions of the most infamous man to be understood in full, and maybe even forgiven.
Viewing all sides of an event without discrimination is a gift, an asset of our human nature. It is an attribute that helps us mortals do more than merely exist. That God-like view helps us grow, to mature; to be less human beings, and more humans… becoming. But looking back at mankind’s long history of war and confrontation, it is obvious that this viewpoint has rarely been in focus.
The best modern example I’ve found of ‘willful objectivity’ is the work of documentary director, Ken Burns. Perusing the past through the lens of his neutral camera, Burns transports his viewers into the hearts and minds of every character, on both sides of the conflict. His films are the closest I’ve seen to that God-like view. And the most vivid of these efforts is his PBS masterpiece – The Civil War.
Being the history buff that I am, that epic riveted me to the screen. Watching as the two sides of an angry nation dug in their heels, I saw countless occasions when compromise was possible but repeatedly thwarted; blocked by the close-minded natures of a stubborn few. Tempers mounted. Fists clinched, and lines were eventually drawn.
Through Ken Burns’ eyes I easily saw both the South’s point of view, and understood the North’s position. But what I couldn’t comprehend was why the two sides of this divided house willingly chose to close their eyes to each other’s view. If only they could have seen themselves from the perspective I was watching. But with their eyes shut tight, each side crossed the line. …Over a half a million died.
As I sat, eyes glued to this visual history lesson, I saw a collection of words fade up on the screen. White on a black; much like the Civil War, itself. The words hung there for a moment, marking the end of one segment and the beginning of another.
“BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE”
The silent phrase spoke volumes. The musician in me woke up. “Better angels…”
It was lyrical. “…of our nature” Simple. Profound. I wrote it down.
As the documentary continued, I discovered that those five words had been spoken by President Abraham Lincoln at his second inaugural. It was a phrase he borrowed from Shakespeare to describe what his war-torn nation needed to focus on most; the other side’s point of view. “With malice toward none and charity for all.”
Everyone that heard his words that day had also heard the sound of cannons. Each listener, gathered around him on the Capitol steps, had also gathered around the graves of family and friends, who had died at the hands of …family and friends. It was not a forgiving crowd. And as I watched, I realized that what I was viewing was not just human history, but timeless human nature.
He fell to his knees and he cried out for mercy
Heart-felt confessionals to an angry mob
But vengeance was theirs
As they bellowed for justice
“Death to the man who has sinned against God”
Given the blood, destruction, raids and retaliations of those four years of war, I found it hard to imagine that anyone could let the stone drop from their hands.
I joined in the chant feeling so high and mighty
Pointing a finger from up on my throne
‘Til I looked in his tears and I caught my reflection
And I knew that I could not cast the first stone
Standing at that podium, Lincoln stood his ground. Before that mob-like crowd, he transformed. No longer was he a human being concerned with his political future, at that moment he was a human ‘becoming’ far more than his humble history predicted. Illuminated by Shakespeare’s five little words, Lincoln searched himself. That unbiased examination helped him take a step back and see things from God’s objective point of view. And looking beyond the prejudice of the era, past the cries for retribution, he focused on reconciliation.
Using the 360 degrees of 20/20 hindsight, the President connected the truth of what had to begin that day, with the tragedy of all that had transpired. And calling on his countrymen to seek out the better angels of their own natures, he reminded them of their God-like ability to take a step back, understand the big picture, and even forgive.
Let the gavel fall slowly tho’ truth’s been revealed
Sequester the jury for a moment to feel
And in the courts of compassion
I hope we can appeal
To the better angels of our nature
The choice of “better angels” implies that a ‘less than good’ nature is always vying to control us. Like the struggle between the North and South, the tug of war between our two-sided character is violent, draining, seemingly unending.
Day after day, we are so busy ‘being’ human; clinching our fists and drawing lines between us and others, that we can’t see the division within ourselves. We bang the gavel, cast the first stone and wonder why the world around us is no longer civil. I think Lincoln realized that his world, as a whole, had no chance, unless the individuals living in it chose to change. He made that deliberate choice to heed the better angels of his nature, and urged his divided nation to do likewise.
Angels of mercy-angels of light
Angels of darkness-angels of might
Angels with voices that whisper so clear
Who do I lean to? Who do I hear?
I love to explore the past, especially my own. Back on that historic day, so long ago, watching Ken Burns’s masterpiece, Shakespeare’s phrase gave me more than a song. When those five little words appeared on the screen, I came close to seeing myself the way God sees me: I am a human, not just being, but constantly becoming. If I want my world, my future, to change for the better, I have to make that same choice –everyday. And all it requires is the desire to do so.
“BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE”
…The words hung there for a moment, marking the end of one segment of my life, and the beginning of another.