Seeking a Higher Ground

Published: June 15, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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better angels of our nature

Even as he took the oath of office, Lincoln knew that civil war was coming. In his first speech as commander and chief, even as he urged restraint, he made clear “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war… You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect and defend” it.

Then, Lincoln summoned extraordinary words that reflected a sincere belief. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though the 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 hearth-stone, 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.”

Despite the Southern states aligned against him, Lincoln remained optimistic; not an optimism that the North will soundly defeat the South. Not an unbridled arrogance of righteousness, but rather, an appeal to our highest aspirations, our most virtuous care toward one another.

On June 10, 1963, with continuing tensions between the United States and Soviet Union, President Kennedy offered a similar hope. “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

Last Saturday (June 13), in a full-page ad appearing in several national newspapers, Lloyd Dean, president and CEO of Dignity Health writes, “Tragedy brings us together. After an earthquake or flood, we forget our incidental differences and act for each other in way we don’t on a day-to-day basis. Our skin color, gender, sexual orientation, and politics fall to the wayside. Our reflex to care kicks in and becomes unstoppable. But can we come together without a crisis?”

While the words are clearly framed as an advertisement, the question is more relevant and challenging than ever.

“Every day in our communities,” Lloyd continues, “research validates what we’ve all intuitively felt: simple humankindness – real, genuine connection – heals us from the inside out.”

Everyone reading this can relate to that sense of genuine connection when a friend, family member, co-worker, and sometimes a stranger, has reached out and helped us or another that has caused us to feel better about humanity.

Yes, Washington is more deeply divided and dysfunctional than ever. Yes, we have a lot more work to do regarding racial and religious tolerance. And yes, there are individuals who, for whatever false ideological reason, hate us to the point where they’re willing to sacrifice their own lives and that of women and children to achieve an unobtainable goal.

How might Lincoln respond to such issues? How could he inspire optimism and hope for the future?

On February 27, 1860, in a speech that virtually assured his stature as a national leader and secured his election as president, Lincoln addressed an audience of 1,500 about his opposition to slavery, but his words might also apply to dealing with today’s threats of violence. “Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events…

“A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!’ To be sure, what the robber demanded of me – my money – was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.”

In his summation, Lincoln focused on both duty and faith. “Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

I would argue that all of us have a vital stake in our government. All of us need to do what we can to be informed, involved, and promote any and all reforms necessary in making this government more functional for all. But it begins with each of us.

“Do not wait for leaders,” Mother Teresa said, “do it alone, person to person.”

So, how do we bring about change? One example comes by way of a Higher Ground Check List prepared by Professor Stephen Ambra’s 2015 Contemporary Ethics Class.

• Utilize “The Golden Rule,” treat others as one would like others to treat you.

• Lead by example, and always go above and beyond what is required in any situation.

• Maintain a “Glass Half-Full” attitude.

• When you make a mistake, admit it and accept the consequences.

• View the world with compassion, and forgive those that may have wronged you in the past.

• Maintain an open mind.

• Maintain your integrity, and be as trustworthy, honest and loyal as possible.

With the help of those better angels, we can not only be the change we wish to see, we can see change happening, person to person, community by community throughout the world.


  1. Jim-I wish more people lived by the higher ground checklist

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