It came out of a dinner party conversation that could have been as light and evanescent as a sweet dessert: sometimes a person you may not know, in a place you’d never expect, says or does precisely the right thing to help you on your way.
You may not be aware that you need assistance. Your mind may be on other things. The person may not be the kind you would notice. But something is said, or done, and your life changes for the better.
I thought back about so many human angels in my life. Some I came to know too well. Familiarity made me downplay the miraculous nature of the good advice, the helping hand, the kind act.
We are most contemptuous of angelic behavior with our parents. For so many years I held tight to grudges, mulled over wounds, railed against mistakes and adjusted downward my opinions of their mental state. It’s so easy to forget that, despite the obvious errors, the inadvertent or deliberate cruelties, the acts of unfairness, injustice and hypocrisy, I would not be here if not for them.
This fact of “being here” does not merely refer to conception. How many times, I wonder, did my behavior bring forth the wish that they simply hadn’t had me? If I hadn’t been born, how many times could they have slept the night?
In such situations, angelic action resembles divine restraint. In others, it can be like a samurai sword cut–a single slash of the blade the ends the conflict.
I once wanted to drop out of college because none of the classes were giving me practical, survival skills. I had lined up a job as an apprentice cook in a diner when an angel told me, “You don’t want to learn the multiplication tables. You’d rather play outside.”
I still haven’t memorized the answer to 11 times 12. And I don’t have the timing and mastery of a short order cook. But I didn’t drop out and, when I was on a group tour of the English Lake District, I was the only tourist on the bus who knew who John Ruskin was. That I had learned about Ruskin after graduating didn’t matter. What I learned most powerfully in college was that learning feels good, and I’ve been an autodidact ever since.
Just recently my wife and I were walking up an uneven stone path to a summit of Helvellyn, the most famous mountain in the Lake District. When it began to rain, we donned our raincoats and kept going. Two climbers came down and warned us of a “white out” at the peak: a condition in which a cloud descends and you can’t see your hand in front of your face.
We took the advice of these angels and turned around. A few days later I heard someone had died when he slipped and fell off the same path.
As I thought about angels, I remembered when I became one. No, I was not filled with a spiritual glow and a resounding sense of purpose. But, through what I said and did, the “white out” became clear.
Less than a month after my son bought his first car, a convertible, he’d driven it too fast on a winding road and hit a tree. The air bag had just gone off and had blown his glasses off his face. He called me and I drove out as quickly as I could. My had no injuries but he was very upset. I stayed with him as the police car rolled up. The officer came out and judged the car totaled. My son became even more upset.
Then I asked the officer how many others had gone too fast on the same road, and hit the same tree. He laughed and said he had done it with his first car.
My son calmed down. When I asked the tow truck driver the same question, we got the same answer. So many people had wrecked the first cars on that road, that my son could not just understand that he made a mistake, but see into what, about that road with its posted 20 miles-per-hour speed limit, had inspired him, and so many others, to go too fast.
At the time I did not know that others had hit the tree. The question just popped into my head, and the answers turned out to be the right ones for my son to hear. I did not feel like an angel. I was just grateful that he was safe and sound.
We never found his glasses.
At times our lives and our world seem so angry and divided that it is difficult to believe we will survive the next hour. Sickness, misfortune and violence visit us for no reason. In the great pursuit of happiness, we find ourselves far behind.
And that’s when angels find us. We get a glimpse, a hint, that problems can be solved, we really can help each other, things may not be as bad as they seem.