Better Angels:  Clarifying the Commitment

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Dear Friends,

Happy New Year!

What have you committed to?  What will define a good or great year when you look back on December 31?

Better Angels Illinois chapter leaders held a potluck brunch today.  Over a mouthwatering international selection of food, we reviewed activities and growth in 2019, and set our sights on 2020 with enthusiasm and camaraderie.  We found encouragement, inspiration, and connection in one another on a remarkably mild January day in Evanston.

We spent a long time today discussing negative media coverage about BA (read in the Washington Post here and the New York Times here).  Basically they say the work is futile at best, and harmful to a progressive agenda at worst.  We queried ourselves for how these articles make us feel, where we think they’re coming from, and how we might approach and respond, both individually and collectively.  I felt so gratified when we agreed that probably we should call forth the communication skills we teach in our workshops:  stay curious and respectful, acknowledge our detractors’ valid points, and stand in our core values, our WHY for doing this work.  I shared my two most recent posts on why I committed to Better Angels and my Fierce Optimism about the value we add to the greater political conversation.

I’m also gratified to read this long article in The Atlantic by Andrew Ferguson.  He attended BA workshops and interviewed the organization’s leaders, took the time to really understand BA’s Why and How, and then summarized it eloquently.  He addressed Julie Kohler’s objections in the WaPo article with respect, humor, and almost defiant hope.  If you’re up for reading another couple thousand words after this, check it out; I highly recommend it.

Finally, I share with you below a letter to members from John Wood Jr., Director of Public Outreach for Better Angels.  I’m satisfied, for now, to let his words speak for me (especially the parts I bolded).

Onward, friends.  We will always be in this together, and I pledge to continue figuring out a better way forward.

***

January 5th, 2020

A Call to Courage

Dear Catherine,

Better Angels began with a kernel of faith.

After the election in 2016 was over, you wouldn’t have found many people who would have told you that it would be easy to bring together 20 or so Clinton and Trump supporters to spend a weekend together discovering their “better angels” when the wounds of the election were so raw. This happened though, and our belief that it could was the beginning of what became an enterprise of goodwill that spread across America. Here at the start of 2020, Better Angels finds itself at the center of a small, but nationwide, movement of Americans from across the divide to reestablish charitable understanding as the foundation of our national conversation.

But our work is deeper than that. And it needs to go deeper.

(I sought to cast a vision of what it looks like to go deeper than ‘merely’ empathy in reforming the fraught social culture of our country in an address to the Visionaries Summit, a gathering of New Age social entrepreneurs, last autumn in California. See it here: Social Transformation Through Self-Transformation: John Wood, Jr. at Visionaries🙂

Building understanding between Americans is not something that we do merely because it feels good.

It does feel good. That is true. There are so many amazing moments in the work that we do that we could never count them.

It does not feel good, however, to have people attack you (from your own ‘side’ no less) for “fraternizing with the enemy.” It does not feel good to put yourself in the line of fire of someone whom you are trying to show kindness to, only to receive contempt from them in return.

We do not do this work simply because it feels good. The work we do is hard. Sometimes, it even hurts.

We do it because the future of the United States of America depends on it.

America’s future rests not first and foremost necessarily on who the president of the United States is or who controls the houses of congress. The future of our nation depends on our own willingness, and our own ability, to maintain the bonds of civic friendship that allow us to behave honorably towards each other as a people.

We do not oppose the two party system at Better Angels. Indeed, we are Republicans and Democrats, alongside Independents and members of third parties, striving together in a working alliance for a deeper good in this country. We seek in essence what you might call Dr. King’s “Beloved Community,” or the “more perfect union” set forth as the aspiration of the Constitution of the United States.

Yet while not challenging the legitimacy of our political parties, we recognize that much in the way of the incentives that are guiding our major political and politically affiliated institutions, including and beyond the parties, are predicated on a willingness to divide the American people for short-sighted political gain.

The means by which some forces in politics, the media, and elsewhere do so often times include intellectual dishonesty – and a striking lack of humility and empathy.

Perhaps one side is more guilty of this than the other. Most of our members, leaders and volunteers feel this way, even if we disagree on which side that actually is. The true balance of error in our politics between the two parties matters. It is a subject that is fit for debate.

Yet, as Republicans and Democrats (and all others) here is what we say matters more:

What matters more is that we set an example for how Americans ought to treat one another – both for the ‘other side’ but more importantly for our own.

What matters more is that we discover and rediscover the power of those ideals that transcend and salvage our politics – the ideals that make us one American people – beyond race, religion or party.

What matters more is that we create the structures, the environment and the resources that allow Americans to engage, to organize and to rebuild community around these ideals – and in opposition to the ways of thinking that would prevent this.

The bases for this work are patriotism and empathy.  But it is also courage.

We believe in the decency of the American people. We believe in the decency of you. We also believe in the bravery of the American people.

We believe you have the courage to meet dishonesty with integrity. We believe you have the courage to meet demagoguery with dignity. We believe you have the bravery to return love for hatred and the tenacity to return understanding for fear.

That is the stand we take in 2020. We are sending out a call to courage. We are grateful that you have the courage to stand with us.

Much, much more to come. Just as America faces a great test this year, our organization and our movement must rise to the challenge of the preserving the heart of our civic conscience. Together, we are equal to the task.

-John Wood, Jr.

National leader & Director of Public Outreach

Better Angels

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