Entertaining angels


Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. - Hebrews 13:2
I don't believe that there are literally angels who walk among us. But I sometimes like to imagine that angels exist. It somehow calls out to the sentimental side of me, especially to imagine that there are beings out there whose sole purpose is to go undercover as humans in order to do acts of kindness. How cool that would be if that were true. Maybe that was why I enjoyed a Norwegian movie from couple of years ago, titled Hawaii, Oslo, that was based on this very premise.

In reality, the idea of angels doing good deeds undercover seems impossible to justify theologically and morally, as nice an idea as it sounds in theory. Since angels (or at least the good ones) presumably act on behalf of God, the whole problem of theodicy returns. Considering how many bad things have happened and continue to happen to people in the world, one would have to wonder if angels are in seriously short supply. There seems to be too much to be done and not enough angels to do it. Or maybe the angels are selective in who they help, and when. But then we have the question of why some people are helped by angels and others are not. In any case, there certainly didn't seem to be enough angels in the world to prevent the Nazi holocaust.

It doesn't really matter. I just like the above quote from the book of Hebrews for its mythological symbolism, about the importance of doing good deeds to others. Because, ultimately, when we do those acts of kindness, it isn't about helping angels; rather, we become the angels ourselves.

There is a problem in my case, though. I would make a terrible angel. I am sure that I am just about the most incompetent person in the world when it comes to reaching out a hand and helping people I don't know. I manage to bungle almost every act of kindness to strangers that I try to do.

Last week, while riding the BART train in Oakland, a somewhat older woman in a wheelchair asked me what the next stop was. She seemed a bit gruff at first, but when I answered her question, she gave a polite smile and thanked me. When we got to the stop she was asking about, I was about to disembark to transfer to another train, and she motioned to me to help wheel her off. I had never pushed a wheelchair off a BART train before, and when I pushed her to the door, the front wheels got stuck in the gap between the train and the platform. There was a limited time to get the chair through before the doors would try to close, and I began to panic as I tried to figure out why her chair wouldn't move and as I tried unsuccessfully to push the chair through, and in trying to push the chair that wouldn't budge my leg bumped up against her back. The woman in the chair started yelling at me impatiently. Finally, another passenger grabbed the front wheels and pulled her forward past the gap and onto the platform. I felt like an idiot and apologized to the woman in the chair.

As I walked to the other side of the platform, another woman came up alongside me and complained about how ungracious the woman in the wheelchair had been towards my efforts. I told her that I actually had been of no help to that woman. She smiled and said, "But at least you tried to help her." She then turned left and headed down the stairs, while I continued straight and sat on the bench to wait for the train.

If I were a believer in angels, I might have considered the woman who walked alongside me and tried to reassure me to be one, since she came out of the blue and seemed to want to make me feel better about my failure at helping someone. But she was no angel--just a person like I am. My feeling about my failure to help was this: it does people no good to try to help others and fail. It only does any good if you actually help them. And who was more in need of an angel, anyway--me, or the woman in the wheelchair? The woman who helped me get the wheelchair off the train when it was stuck was much more of an angel to the wheelchair bound passenger than I was.

My usual incompetence with respect to helping strangers most frequently manifests itself via my inability to give useful directions to people when they stop me on the street. Even when I am familiar with the area I almost never know the answer to their question, or, even worse, I sometimes give directions that I later realize to be faulty. I was thinking about this very issue yesterday at lunchtime as I was walking to a restaurant from my car. As if by magic, two young women came up to me asked me where the corner of Portola and Vicente was. I knew this intersection were very close to where I was standing, but I wasn't sure. I looked around for Portola and finally saw a street sign for it up the hill. I pointed it out to them, and that seemed to satisfy them. They thanked me. Maybe they were angels, sent there to make me feel better about my inability to give good directions. But, in reality, I never did tell them exactly where the intersection that they asked about was located. I only gave them some small bit of information that may or may not have led them to where they wanted to go.

My feeling is that part of why I as a human being is put here is to make the world a better place than it would have been had I not been here. And I'm not always sure that I am really doing a very good job of carrying out that mission.


Slightly Mystic Cyclist said...

I too have experienced my own bungling in trying to help others. My brain remembers things that I ought not and forgets things I ought to remember. I am mechanical, can build, can repair things, can work on computers, have a gift for writing, and yet, when I try to use any of these things to help others, I must be cautious, because I have broken cars, caused leaks, crashed tvs and computers, and steered people to the wrong side of town. But I do not give up. I am determined that if life is to have meaning it is at least in part to share what we can for the benefit of others, even if we make mistakes, are criticized, and continue to make mistakes.