Better Angels of Our Nature

Perhaps, in the end, we are all “fragments of a mirror whose whole design and shape we do not know”.

Better Angels of Our Nature
Capital Thinking | Better Angels of Our Nature

Capital Thinking • Issue #13 • View online

Are there any questions?

“Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?”

The usual laughter followed and people stirred to go.

Papaderos held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was.

“I will answer your question.”

Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into a leather billfold and brought out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter.

And what he said went like this:

“When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.

“I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round.

I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine – in deep holes and crevices and dark closets.

It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.

“I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game.

As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life.

I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light.

But light – truth, understanding, knowledge – is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.

“I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world – into the black places in the hearts of men – and change some things in some people.

Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”

And then he took his small mirror and holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk.

Much of what I experienced in the way of information about Greek culture and history that summer is gone from memory.

But in the wallet of my mind I carry a small round mirror still.

- Robert Fulghum , It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, Villard Publishing 1989

Most of us make few distinctions about the world around us.

Ideas either make sense to us or they don’t. We are either tall or short. Black or white. Rich or poor. Smart or … not so much.

And we categorize other people the same way.

Nice people and those who choose to be cruel. Friends versus enemies. Family or strangers.

We think we understand our world and can make sense of it. We like to fool ourselves into thinking things are simple, but as we grow older we find that is not often the case.

Take people for example. My grandfather used to tell me, “People are funny varmints. You just can’t tell about ‘em.”

Hate to say it, but the older I get the more convinced I am that he was right. So you can lump me right in with rest when I tell you there are people I care about and some I can take or leave. They simply don’t matter to me.

I do have one other category, but not that many people qualify.

Those who do, I would describe as dedicated, determined, and focused almost to a fault. Battered by life’s journey, they remain unbroken. Despite their trials, they seem to emerge strengthened and renewed.

Some are famous and some are not.

Nelson Mandela endured long years of imprisonment to bring an end to apartheid in his country.

Victor Frankel survived the horrors of WWII concentration camps and discovered the wondrous resilience of the human spirit.

Allan Savory risked life and property while continuing to fight desertification around the world.

And the man in the story, Alexander Paperderos, rose from modest circumstances to bring together two bitter enemies in order that they might learn to celebrate their differences in peace.

I admire their passion, their zeal, and their accomplishments. I also envy their ability to focus on a better world that often seems to be just out of our grasp.

We disengage, but they do not. We become bored and distracted, but they are not. We would give up the fight, but they will not.

Perhaps, in the end, we are all “fragments of a mirror whose whole design and shape we do not know”.

I can only believe that like the mirror in the story, these people are able to reflect a light into our souls and somehow, to borrow the the words of Abraham Lincoln, “touch the better angels of our nature.”

You can learn more about Papaderos here and Fulghum’s book here

*Featured post photo by Inga Gezalian on Unsplash