How I Inherited the Earth

This is my own personal Angel Story, but it’s not really so much about me as about the people who made me possible.

It starts with the man for whom I am named – US Army Lieutenant John Christ – my Uncle Jack. He was one of the many millions of casualties of World War II.

I only knew my Uncle Jack from the stories his younger brother, my father, told me. When I was barely old enough to understand them, the stories my father told me about my Uncle Jack were all funny stories, as were just about every other story my father ever told. Many of his stories were about how he and his beloved older brother played with their buddies in the streets of West Philadelphia, and how they ran on the beach and swam in the surf every summer in Wildwood, New Jersey, which helped my Uncle Jack transform himself into a champion middle distance runner at Drexel University.

Because my father’s stories were so entertaining, I never appreciated the unfathomable and insurmountable grief my father and his parents suffered in the wake of Jack Christ’s death until I reached adulthood. But I also learned as a child that my uncle’s death also became the incubator for the love between my father and my mother, who was an elementary-school teacher during their courtship. My mother’s courage, compassion, and unwavering support for my father cemented their relationship and prepared them both to be my parents. When I was born, my father, a jazz musician, was a private in the US Army in charge of entertainment at Forth Monmouth, New Jersey.

I was supposed to be born in October, 1944, but I snuck into the world three months early. I found out later that doctors and hospitals all over America in 1944 were giving premature babies too much oxygen in their incubators, causing many of them to die or go blind. In my case, the army brought in two specialists from nearby New York City who knew just what to do with all the right equipment to help me survive.

I spent six weeks in an incubator and over the next 71 years I’ve often wondered about the people who nursed me through that valley of the shadow of death. Those two doctors would have failed without the help of many other people – nurses, orderlies, and people who just kept the hospital running. I’m sure they cared about the frail and bewildered infant in the incubator, but mainly they were just doing their job like good people who recognized instinctively that we all share a common humanity and we all depend on each other all the time.

As I look back, I realize that those people were acting out an ancient and mysterious drama that made that hospital and that incubator and those doctor/nurse/orderly roles possible in the first place. Perhaps the drama started with the taming of fire and the recognition of our shared capacity for learning and making things to solve shared problems and realize shared visions. In any case, the people who saved my puny little life were all acting on the energy of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” So, bottom line, my Angel Story is a story of gratitude – HEARTFELT THANKS to all the better angels who made me possible, let alone habitually happy for 71 years. In 2013, my wife and I both retired from the faculty and staff of Ripon College in Wisconsin, another incubator for Better Angels. We have enough money saved up for the rest of our lives, but we don’t have much extra to give away.

Thanks to the Wisconsin Leadership Institute, however, there’s now a nonprofit organization to help people like me support good causes we believe in well beyond our own financial resources. We’re building a community of Better Angels who pay just $20 per year in membership dues to help us identify, promote, and celebrate good causes of all sorts. You can check out the ones we’ve already identified in the “Good Causes” menu of our website.

Most foundations and nonprofit organizations are created by very wealthy people and the corporations they built – witness Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, Templeton, and Gates. Those of us who created Our Better Angels are not even remotely wealthy, but we do have faith in the generosity and the wisdom of the vast non-wealthy majority of our fellow human beings – people who can maybe only afford $20 per year to support their favorite good cause but who are willing to speak up and invite others to follow their example and join the Better Angels Community.

In future Angel Stories, I’ll talk about some of my own favorite Good Causes. One of our hopes is that paying attention to what we do at Our Better Angels will help people develop the habit of paying attention to examples of the positive, productive, creative, empathetic, generous side of human nature all around us. Thanks very much for paying attention to my Angel Story.