Monday, September 19, 2011

"the better angels of our nature"

After China's 1959 assertion of power in Tibet, a Tibetan Buddhist monk was asked what his greatest fear had been during the upheaval. He replied, "I was afraid I might lose my compassion."

Hard times often put what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" to the test. It's easy to be kind and decent when times are tranquil, but when times grow dire, sometimes it takes all of whatever energy anyone has just to survive this day, this hour, this moment. This is far from some cozy philosophical theory or some polite religious straw man. When times get hard, things really are hard.

Now, in economic hard times, there is a report that the incidence of child abuse rose among the poor during the bubble-popping recession years.

Reading "among the poor" may allow some to secretly expel a sigh of relief. "Well, I'm not that badly off, thank God." And from this, there may be some quiet inference that the heinousness of child abuse has not yet crossed our own threshold.

But I think the economic recession is probably taking a toll on "the better angels of our nature," our very own children that deserve love and protection...and receive it when times are not hard. Bit by bit our care and concern and kindness are set to the side ... when times get hard, things really are hard. And if not abusers in any active sense, we become abusers by neglect.

Anyone who has had children, whether in good times or bad, will sympathize with the parent who has "had it up to here" with his or her kids. The longing to do bodily (or psychological) harm, so often kept in check, simply requires too much energy to keep in check when times are hard and pressures mount.

And the better angels of our nature -- those attentively nourished children -- are no different. Decency and caring and love can be whittled away when the stress mounts.

I can't say that I have any succulent, boiler-plate answer for any of this. But I would note that the children we have nourished when times were good are the very thing we honor about ourselves or others. They are important not simply in some altruistic, goody-two-shoes sense, but in a very personal sense. This is our intimate wealth, and the question is whether it is worth selling for "thirty pieces of silver."

I wouldn't say yes and I wouldn't say no. Hard times really are hard.

But I would say that if there were something literally worth  dying for, "the better angels of our nature" might be a damned good choice.

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