The Angel Within

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?

10 thoughts on “The Angel Within

  1. ‘Tis the season indeed. And, definitely, if not now, when? Love how you are seeing opportunities to experiment with Empathy, Harmony, Positivity, Developer…and stepping into them (and it’s OK if sometimes it’s just thinking about stepping into them). You are on your way…I am sure by 2014 you will have more angel energy! It’s all about intentions! I’m here cheering for you, my friend!

    • Hi Vicki! Well, if there is a person born to be an angel, I believe it’s you. :-) Thank you so much for telling me it’s okay to “think” about stepping into those challenging strengths – I hadn’t thought about that being part of the process. Kind of like a “Ready, Set, Go!” I wasn’t quite able to hit Go, but there was a little bit of “Ready.”

      Appreciate your insight, my friend. If you get this and have a chance, I’d be interested to know what you would have done. Not to make it right or wrong, but to help me understand new possibilities.

      Here’s to earning our wings! Onward!!

  2. Hey, there, you are too kind. Hmm…what would I have done? Regarding the China Town incident, like you, I would probably have just watched, wondering if there is something I could have or should have done. Too afraid to confront the kind of person who would beat up a hungry homeless person and too uncertain to reach out to the hungry homeless man. I would like to think I’m the kind of person who helps those in need, who acknowledges the humanity in another…yet, do I do this regardless of the circumstances, or just when it’s easy? You’ve got me thinking.

    Regarding you recent story about the ‘star wars’ guy…on any given day, I might have just walked past, not even noticing. Many days I’d probably do just like you, and think “I wonder if there is something I can do to acknowledge this person.” and been too afraid to act. I have learned that smiles are free and I try to give those away to everyone – mind you, I have ‘my days’ :). However, this situation puts an interesting spin on things given that the person is blind – it calls for a very conscious action. I’d think about it and make a commitment to ‘next time’ and start visualizing myself doing it.

    You have most certainly got me thinking about how I engage with those who are cold and hungry and on the streets this winter. I’ve been thinking about buying a bunch of $5 Subway gift cards and carrying them when I run downtown on the weekends to give to the homeless people that I inevitably come across. I hesitated when I bought my lunch yesterday. Next time, I will buy them with conviction. Thank you, my friend!

    • WOW. A couple of things stand out at me – visualization is a great tool. I wish I remembered it more often. Perhaps it’s because I have Context, and visualization is all about the future. Love that idea.

      And then… what a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays (which are such a hard time for some people) by giving away gift cards for food. It’s a fabulous approach, Vicki, and I’m so glad you have shared it with us!!! I will follow your example.

      I love this discussion! On to Hazel’s remarks!

  3. Maureen and Vicky, you leave me humbled on this one.
    First, I don’t think I am the angel type; I assume that people want to do bad things and if I put my hand in my pocket to help then I am just as likely to get mugged. I know from first hand experience that nobody will step up to help when a stranger is in trouble. I will stop to help someone who has fallen, offer to help with a child’s buggy on stairs and other such ‘safe’ things, but not every day and I think I can be comfortable doing that a little more often.
    Like you Vicky I have learned that smiles are free and they hold value, and I try to be generous with them. The people selling ‘Big Issue’ http://www.bigissue.org.uk/ get a polite ‘No thank you’ as I look them in the eye and smile. They deserve respect and courtesy, but I am not a customer.
    I sometimes think perhaps a person would like a cup of hot tea, but I never summon the courage to follow through and offer.
    So on my most angelic days I come close to Vicky on an off day? I would take that as a win, and maybe try to do a little better.
    I am not really a people person, however, I will always go out of my way for a dog.

    • Hazel – my gosh, I read your post and think, “Hazel doesn’t understand what it means to be an angel!” How helpful were you to me when I needed it during that tough work time? And with internal blogs, etc. You were calm, practical and totally helpful. Lifesaver. That’s an angel if I’ve ever heard of one. (Maybe it’s worth exploring what behavior qualifies as angel-like!) And I like that you have boundaries for what you’ll support.

      As for helping strangers, it is hard, and I think it might be one of those things that gets slightly easier with practice, but I’m not sure. I helped a man with diabetes once and thought he was going to kill me (not kidding) – it is too long to go into here – another post, perhaps. But I’m still glad I did it – he didn’t mean to be threatening, he was falling into shock… and me being a non-doctor, I didn’t know it. Anyhow – we can all work towards being more like Vicki – that’s what I was so glad she rung in. Her strengths are so different from ours…

      But back to the idea that ALL BEINGS matter – you are being angelic if you help a dog, my friend. Just remember that… :-) I would be far less likely to help a dog than a person – we need all of us to make the universe work well.

  4. Maureen, you have shown us what is in your heart and that takes courage! Sharing your passion for the strengths approach, you have given us all a mirror to look in and see what is good about ourselves and with that you have done more angel work than you will probably ever know.

    • Hello Karin! What a lovely message you’ve left for me – definitely lifts my heart to hear that (and isn’t that what angels do? Lift the hearts of others?) :-) It means a lot coming from you – I don’t know anyone more committed to “being the change” – you set such a great example, and we have proof from all those excellent photos from your last event. Keep up the good work, my dear friend. Here’s to discovering and celebrating the angel within!

  5. Hi Maureen. Thank you so much for all of you thought provoking posts. I haven’t known you all that long but I do know that you ARE an angel. All of the work you have done with people at work and elsewhere in helping them understand Strengths and helping them finally understand themselves is truly angelic. I find it is easy for me to be the angel where I am comfortable, feel safe and know the rules. Not so easy otherwise. It requires us to take leaps that can be very daunting. Just having the desire to make a difference is huge. Many don’t. The main thing for us is to keep trying! Keep thinking about what holds us back. Keep finding bridges that shorten the leaps (your camera?). Keep taking those tiny leaps one after another, and using what we learn in taking the next leap!

    • Hi April! What nice things to say! I am grateful to hear that you’ve found the strengths stuff helpful – it is wonderful, isn’t it?

      I also like that you know how to craft a space for you to be most angelic – that’s a great point that I hadn’t thought of. Like with our strengths, there will be some places that work better for us than others.

      Making that leap is key – and once we land safely, it feels so darn good, doesn’t it? I really appreciate your insight on how to find ways to narrow the gap – that is fabulous thinking. We can all learn from you, my friend! Thanks again for adding your awesome voice to this conversation!

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