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On being our better selves

By KATHLEEN PARKER

Sometimes it takes a virus to summon the better angels of our nature, to take liberal license with Abraham Lincoln’s famous words.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln said: “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 … will yet swell … when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

His words remind us that throughout our history, our leaders have often risen to outsize challenges with language that has inspired us. Other periods are notable for an absence of lyricism at the lectern — or before television cameras and microphones. As I researched Lincoln’s words, it was jarring to hear Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., criticizing California’s school closings as “overkill” in response to COVID-19, and that “children could have went back to school in two weeks to four weeks.”

In such moments, we find it necessary to inspire ourselves. And Americans, though rabidly divided, are doing just that. More than a few times, I’ve heard strangers say, in so many words, “We’re supposed to learn something from this.” Coastal residents, especially in the Bible Belt, tend to be, shall we say, spiritually alert, often to others’ benefit. Frequently, this perspective coaxes out the question: What can I do to help?

This isn’t to say we humans are reliably angelic, especially not when we’re on the hunt for bathroom tissue. At the local Publix, which opens at 8 a.m., at least 100 people had gathered in the parking lot Friday by 7:30 a.m. When the gates opened, caffeinated demons rushed in. One of the shoppers, Pawleys Island lawyer Elizabeth “Muffy” Kneece, told me it was a surreal sight as masked neighbors skipped the niceties — and the carts — and sprinted to the paper-products aisle.

Well, they did say we’re at war, didn’t they?

Cognitive dissonance surrounds us. Nature is grand-jete-ing through springtime, taunting us with azure skies and dazzling us with color, while we ponder darkly the unseen microscopic world of bat viruses that seem bent on wiping out the human race. There’s an ambient, almost universal, sense that any minute it may be our turn.

One escape, people have found, is by turning outward to help others, starting in your own backyard. This may mean standing on the balcony and singing arias for neighbors. Or, say, running a marathon in your small garden, as one British man did, raising $22,000 for COVID-19 relief. Church of Christ parishioners in nearby Georgetown, South Carolina, gathered at the local hospital parking lot to pray and sing their appreciation to employees leaving during a shift change.

Here in Pawleys Island, the loaves-and-fishes parable is becoming a reality. Restaurateur Josh Quigley, who co-owns three restaurants along The Grand Strand coastal highway, decided to feed people — at no cost. After having to furlough 300 employees, keeping only managers employed at reduced salaries, Quigley wanted to do something to help.

He first consulted with local Episcopal rector William Keith, to figure out how to feed first responders. (Father Wil is also chaplain for the local fire department.) But before their brainstorming session was over on the eve of their experiment, which launched Thursday, they decided to make the food available to anyone who showed up. Copying the model created by One World Everybody Eats, a network of about 50 pay-as-you-can cafes around the country, Quigley created baked-pasta take-out meals to feed families of four to eight.

If you could pay the $5 cost of the meal, fine. If not, Quigley said the restaurant was earning enough from its other take-out customers to cover the cost of feeding those in need. Father Wil hopes to press other restaurants into service, taking turns one night a week so that locals can feed their families every night.

These unheralded efforts, small perhaps in their scope but vast in their impact, are a useful reminder that we are learning something, as we try to build a better foxhole. Or, perhaps, those better angels of our nature are touching the mystic chords of memory, just like the man said.

When we get to the other side of this pandemic, the challenge will be to keep these bonds of affection — and to remember that we are not enemies, but, indeed, friends.

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