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Our Better Angels

 We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.


-Abraham Lincoln, from the First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861



Though I am profoundly secular, I cannot abstain entirely from the imperatives of what for so many in the world is a contemplative, holy week: Passover, Easter, Ramadan. I am not a student of religion, so perhaps the Hindus also have such a week; if so, please educate me.  


I have no plans to pray this holy week—prayer has always eluded me—though I will listen attentively as others pray, and if a person of the faith, any faith, blesses me at the end of a conversation or an encounter, I will  accept and cherish the blessing.


Thank you to all the believers out there for remaining hopeful that this worrisome world will right itself before the apocalypse, or that we will forestall an apocalypse—environmental, political, or both. Are we celebrating the first of several indictments? Not just yet.


Let us pray!!


Two of my doctors are observant Jews. They enter the office to examine me wearing yarmulkes and ask how is my family. If the family is healthy, we are well, one of them says, a faith based on modern medicine as well as religious tenets, I suppose. I recite the news of the wellness or medical challenges in my family and include myself in the dissertation. The examination proceeds apace as I continue,"This time of year, I think of my family murdered in the camps and my great-uncle Arnold, a doctor such as yourself, who tried to save people before their transport from Terezin to Auschwitz, or perhaps ease their passage." My observant and religiously observant physician probably did not expect such a long, pithy answer, but I can't get my lost family out of my mind, or disregard them, ever. Not to mention the recent atrocities in Ukraine, or the unexpected demise of so many lost to Covid, or at the hands of police, or the violence and demonstrations in Israel and Palestine, or the parched Salt Lake, and so on, all over the world.


Are we being tested, I wonder, and if so, by whom, or what? Have we inflicted all these afflictions upon ourselves?


My secular existence aside, the Talmud and the Mishnah are intriguing for a writer. These are commentaries, discussions, critiques of the text, a historic template for a writer's workshop. And written so long ago. Millenia.


Perhaps there are explanations of human cruelty in these tomes, and guidance for an altruistic path forward, such as this one: "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief… Walk humbly now…You are not obligated to complete the work. But neither are you free to abandon it." Various riffs on this aphorism turned up on social media a lot during the pandemic, though there's an argument, religious in its intensity, whether it is from the Mishnah or the Talmud. What say you scholars? Does it matter? Is there a similar aphorism in the Quran? Or the Bible? Or the Bill of Rights? Are our foundational origin stories, myths, and beliefs, the beginning of an argument, a lifelong schism, a violent outburst, a war? Or will the better angels of our nature surface in the maelstrom as we pray for peace, or, at the very least, imagine it.


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