The reason angels can fly is because they take themselves lightly. – G.K. Chesterton
Those of you who know me well can vouch for the fact that I’m not up for the Angel of the Year award! Sure, I’ve photographed kids with autism, cystic fibrosis, and Down’s syndrome to help raise money for a good cause. None of this was hard for me to do because when I have my camera in hand, I’m working. The camera is a safety net, a guard rail. Real angelic behavior doesn’t come easily for me, and that’s both a strengths statement and a self-leadership statement. So what’s an aspiring angel to do?
I love the quote from G. K. Chesterton because I believe it. I believe that if you take yourself less seriously, it’s easier to make room for the importance of others. By importance, I mean simple human value.
I got my first terrific lesson in human value when I was walking the streets of China Town in New York City with a colleague in 1984. The city was teeming with life, as it always is. It was evening and I remember how lit up China Town was. A few yards ahead of me, I saw a homeless man sitting on the curb, holding a soup can which he was using to collect money from pedestrians. Out of nowhere, a well-dressed man rushed up and began to kick the homeless man, shouting threats, obscenities, and accusations. The homeless man held his frail arms up in an ineffective defense and dropped his soup can. His money spilled on the ground. After five or six blows, the well-dressed man walked away.
And then, the weirdest thing happened. The man returned, emptied his pockets of cash and coins, and threw the all his money at the homeless man. He screeched one last insult, and stormed off. The homeless man, puzzled and hurt, swiftly picked up the money and left. The whole thing was over in 20 seconds.
My colleague and I stood there, mute, stunned and mystified by the unexplainable incident. No one helped the homeless man. No one went after the well-dressed man. But I really felt for the poor man, both because of his circumstances, though I have no idea what they were or what caused them, but mostly because it must feel terrible to be kicked and then rewarded by the same person. It was the dichotomy of the incident that I found really hard to understand.
Had I been a better angel, I might have sent my colleague after the bad guy and gone after the homeless man to see if I could help (or vice versa – I do hate bullies). We didn’t have cell phones, there was no real way to alert the police. Both men were gone instantly. I think of this incident often. I didn’t do anything, which to this day, I feel bad about.
I’m reading an interesting book called the Joy of Living by a Buddhist monk named Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (don’t ask me how to say it.)
He speaks about ego being the main reason we separate ourselves from the value of other beings. If you can take yourself lightly, like G.K. Chesterton says, you aren’t dragged down by ego. Ego is heavy. Ego is a wall. Ego is a defense mechanism. If ego is engaged, it’s easy to say that we don’t need to get involved because we are not like “them”. We can find a reason to remain detached – money, looks, race, clothing, weight, education, beauty, athleticism, talent – there are any number of reasons we can view other people or beings as “less than me.”
One way to lower ego is to focus on compassion and removing the suffering of others. All living things on this earth are trying to find happiness and reduce suffering. The author says that everything and everyone counts, like we even have to be nice to SNAKES! (This is for people who have climbed higher up the Angel Tree than me.)
Then, there is the simple fact that there are a lot of people I don’t like. Frankly, those with the most ego are those I like the least – why should I be nice to them? They are already so full of themselves that how I treat them shouldn’t matter at all (notice the distance I just created between “them” and me – even I see it!) I don’t really want to offer them even one ounce of compassion. And snakes? Seriously?? (In fairness to the author, he provides an interim step, allowing us to start small. “I can view some people and some things with compassion” – he knows this is hard – a stepping stone definitely helps!)
This stuff doesn’t come naturally to me because I’m low in Empathy, Harmony, Positivity, Developer – all the ‘good strengths’ that would make it easier for me to see all people and living things through the lens of compassion.
This isn’t new insight for me. I’ve known for some time. The difference between then and now is that I’m trying to lead myself to a higher limb on the Angel Tree. I want to develop whatever Angel ability I have in me, no matter how small it might be.
For example, this summer, when I saw an old man bent over nearly in half by some sort of bone disease, and realized that he was carrying a valise, I offered to help him get it to his car. This took enormous courage on my part – I don’t know this man, never seen him before, may never see him again, and it would be so much easier to walk past and pretend I didn’t notice him. Other people would have found the idea of offering assistance to be the most natural thing to do in the world. It’s not right or wrong, it just is what it is for each one of us. He declined my help, and in a clear voice, said, “No, it’s good for me to do this.” I smiled, honored his request, and went on into the drug store . But, I have to admit, I felt a sense of satisfaction that I overcame my natural aloofness and made the effort. I practiced self-leadership. However, I still have a ways to go.
This morning, early, cold and dark, I was at the same drug store to buy a paper. I like to read the Sunday paper. I read it slowly, thoroughly, grumbling and cheering, depending on what I find between the pages.
I saw a man sitting near the street on a folding chair. I’ve seen him there in the summer, but don’t recall seeing him there this early in the day, or in this weather (it’s very cold here: 11F or – 11C cold.) I believe he is blind because he has a white cane. I’ve never seen him walking. I’ve only ever seen him sitting and rocking in place. I glanced at him on my way in, and the notion of offering him food or money entered my mind.
I purchased my paper, exited into the frigid air, and glanced over at him. He was dressed in a huge black hooded parka. A black scarf completely engulfed his face (completely – after all, he doesn’t need to leave room for his eyes if he can’t see), black pants, black boots, and black mittens. He had a pile of bags near his feet. He looked like the Grim Reaper or a character from a Star Wars movie. I stared at him for a moment, hung on the precipice of angel-dom, and then gave up. I couldn’t do it. The gulf between us felt too great for me to overcome – for today, anyhow. I know there are angels among you who would have made a different choice.
I got in my car and drove away.
Maybe next time I am there, and maybe in daylight, I can choose a different path. In the meantime, I remain committed to developing the angel within, leveraging my higher strengths like Individualization, Learner, and Maximizer, and using them to self-lead myself towards success. I don’t do it for a halo. I do it because I believe I will be a happier person. My tiny experiments have proven it to be so.
After all, ‘tis the season for angels, isn’t it? If not now, when?
What do you guys think?