Sunday, May 15, 2005

You Are a Guardian Angel

A couple of years ago I was flying home from New York, I think after a teaching in New Jersey. At the airport, after I checked my luggage, I took an escalator up to the boarding area. In front of me on the escalator was an older couple, maybe in their sixties, but youthful for that age. About halfway up the escalator, the man lost his balance and fell backwards. And I caught him.

I was somewhat prepared for this, because my mother had taken a similar fall a few months earlier. She fell from some stairs onto tile, and knocked herself out. So I wasn't exactly expecting him to fall, but when he did I wasn't surprised.

There's a kind of seductive phrase that you hear from time to time: "guardian angel." It sounds really cool. If you ever read Family Circus in the newspaper, you may have seen that cartoonist's idea of a guardian angel - a nice person with wings, invisible, who catches the children (how old are they now?) when they stumble. My aunt, Florence, talks about angels too, and the way she talks about them leads me to believe that she thinks they are invisible.

They are not. Look around you. Maybe you're sitting at home, alone. Where are your guardian angels? If you're reading this, you're online. There are people sitting in a network operations center miles from you right now, making sure that your network connection is working. The road that leads to your house was conceived of, designed and built by a whole army of people, for you. The food in your stomach, or in your refrigerator, was grown for you, delivered to you, probably prepared for you by another, similar army. People are worrying about the quality of the air you breathe, the water you drink, and taking action, sometimes at great personal expense, to make sure that it is good.

But this article isn't about them. It's about you. The world thrusts itself at you - you can't stop it. Sometimes in pleasant ways, sometimes in very unpleasant ways. Sometimes you feel protected, sometimes you don't. But when you are out in the world, among the people, opportunities will appear to you to be a guardian angel. If you're lucky, it'll be something really amazing, like saving a guy from a really painful injury. More often, it'll be a chance to pay some small kindness to someone else.

Maybe when you're in the airport, your flight will be canceled, and you'll have to talk to the person behind the counter, and you'll be tenth in line, and the person behind the counter will have been yelled at by the previous nine people, even though he had nothing to do with the flight delay, and you'll smile at him, and the tension in his chest will ease a little, and he will go home feeling like he helped you, instead of feeling beaten up. Maybe you're the guy behind the counter, and you'll listen patiently to the mean people yelling at you, and help them to get home, even though they're being mean to you, even though there is no tenth person in line to smile at you.

My father and mother have a weird relationship. My mother tends to conceal things from my father, because my father isn't the person my mother wants him to be, and she has trouble accepting him as he is, and trusting in his good intentions. So even when he could help her, she doesn't tell him what's going on. Which is too bad, because in fact he has very good intentions, even though his intentions are not to be whom she wants him to be. He puts a lot of effort into taking care of her, making sure she has what she needs.

When Mary died, my grandmother needed my mother to fly out to Oklahoma to help out - my grandmother is completely disabled, and can't take care of herself. My mother is partially disabled, but was game to go take care of grandma anyway. She couldn't get a flight the next day to Oklahoma. My father isn't a whiz at travel sites (he has difficulty traveling). I was in a class at Diamond Mountain, and so not very reachable.

So he camped out on AIM, sending me pings every fifteen minutes, until I finally responded. He told me the situation, and asked me to figure out how to get my mother to Oklahoma as quickly as possible, because he knew I was a whiz with travel sites. While he was at it, he planted the idea in my head that I should be prepared to go take care of her if things got hairy in Oklahoma.

Things did get hairy. Two weeks later I was on a plane to Oklahoma myself. I don't know if he will appreciate being thought of as her guardian angel, and I'm sure she'd have trouble with the idea. I'm sure I'll hear from both of them about how they feel about this. But I think there's a case to be made for thinking of it this way.

Why bother, though? Isn't it just some kind of trick? No, that's what angels are. You may see yourself as ordinary, but you aren't ordinary. I think it helps to think of yourself as a real guardian angel, and I think it's true - it's not just pretending. If there are guardian angels in the world, there's no reason for them to be anything other than the people around you, and if the people around you are guardian angels, why can't you be one too?

Thinking this way helps to be happy when you're helping people who don't appreciate what you're doing, You're part of a secret conspiracy to make them happy, and it doesn't matter if they know. It just matters that you're doing it. If you think this way, it might make it easier to bear when people don't appreciate what you do. If you think of yourself as a guardian angel, you will start to see opportunities to be a guardian angel. It's a positive feedback loop.

Being a guardian angel isn't always easy. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do to protect someone is a thing that will make them angry at you, or make them feel like you are a bad person. You aren't omniscient - even though you're a guardian angel, you can't play God. But a lot of times we do things we think of as good not because we are thinking of someone's benefit, but because we are hoping they will like us. When what they need is something that will make them dislike us, we have to be ready to do it anyway. When our gut instinct tells us to get in the way, and our wish for approval tells us to back off, we have to get in the way.

A nice side effect of being a guardian angel, if you do it right, is that you start to see guardian angels around you. The person who does something to help you isn't just a nice person - they're looking out for you. It's personal.

The ultimate benefit, I think, is that eventually you realize that the people in your world who seem to be working against you may be doing so because they are trying to help you. The world we live in is a frightening place, and we are often afraid of the wrong things. So we make the wrong decisions. Our guardian angels are there to help us, by frustrating our goals, getting in the way of the mistakes we so desperately want to make.

Why mention this now? It's a practice - even though it's true, I don't always remember that it's true, and so I forget to to do it. Writing about it, like this, helps me to remember. The people who know me and read this will, because they are my guardian angels, point at me and laugh when I forget that I am their guardian angel, and this too will help me to remember.


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