“It is a term that gets thrown around a lot, to define it, and this was the view in antiquity, was the view in the Hebrew Bible, was the view in the Greek New Testament. Soul can be translated in Hebrew and Greek as breath or life. They’re the same thing. And so when God breathed life into man in Genesis, the word could have been soul. When Jesus said greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends, life could be translated soul. It is the essence of who we are. It’s a combination of our dispositions, of our hearts and minds, our thoughts and feelings. And my view is, in terms of the country, that not all is good and not all is bad, it’s like all of us. The soul for me anyway, is a constant daily struggle between my better angels and my worst instincts. We all confront that every day. So in a republic, in a democracy, that is the fullest manifestation of all of us, we are in fact the sum of our parts. Then the country has to decide at every point do we want to reach out. Do we want to expand the definition of liberty. Do we want to increase the mainstream. Do we want to build bridges or do we want to build walls. And this becomes, I think, questions for the soul itself.”
These are the words from Pulitzer Prize winning author and presidential historian, Jon Meacham when asked to define the concept of the soul. A question he ponders deeply in his his best selling book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (which is now also an HBO documentary).
There is a moment…young people of every ilk, arm in arm, in a beautiful field all singing, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”…everyone rises from their blankets and lawn chairs as the flag bearing cadre of Veterans approaches on the parade route…the raucous crowd at the ball park becomes completely silent in respect for the honoring of a fellow human who has lost their life…the storm is passed, leaving a path of devastation, yet all around neighbors and strangers helping each other – these are all moments, manifestations of our better angels.
The challenge is while these better angel moments in large and small ways happen across our country they are rarely raised up. They are seen as special moments, occasional incidents rather than common place daily occurrences. I accidentally left my wallet in a cab in New York – the driver circles the block and returns it to me. My car gets stuck in a huge snow drift in a blizzard – two farmers come to my rescue with their tractors. After a long exhausting day I arrive home to the smell of a fresh baked pie that a neighbor has dropped off. Honestly, if I truly paid attention, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t experience our better angels.
There are of course no shortage of examples of our worst instincts. After I was robbed my reaction was to “build a stronger fortress”. When I saw the parent scream at the top of their lungs at their small child in the store, my initial reaction was an incredible desire to go and scream at said parent. As I watched the air become stifled with hate filled speech, my instinctual reaction was to return fire with fire with my own vitriol rhetoric.
Jon Meacham is right. Each of us every day, and all of us collectively, have a choice as to how we are going to respond or react to what the moment brings us. Will we succumb to our worst instincts of reacting in self orientation and survivalism. Or will we respond to our better angels and reach out our hand, offer an olive branch, open ourselves to others and fully live out what we commonly know as the Golden Rule.
This is our soul work, both individually and collectively. Don’t you agree – our families, our neighbors, our community, our country is unequivocally worth choosing our better angels now more than ever