Thursday, December 3, 2015

Angels From Both Perspectives

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers." -- Mr. Rogers

Angels are real but they're not what you think. Angels don't appear with beatific smiles or soothing tones of voice. They're neutral and unremarkable. They fix things and leave quickly, before you can fully register what's happened. The best adjective I can think of is the very last one you'd expect: they seem ridiculously normal.

I was late for a very important gig at a famous jazz club in Madrid. I was beyond lost; I was hopelessly, miserably lost in the city streets, trying to find the club. This was very very bad, and I was starting to become hysterical. Suddenly, I reached a corner, and someone who seemed to have been waiting there came towards me, and pointed me down a cross street, indicating where I'd need to turn left. I turned to thank him, but he was gone, and I followed the directions straight to the club. It was all so unremarkable, that it would have been phenomenally easy to fail to notice the strangeness of what had happened. What had happened? To this day, I have no idea. I'd never performed in Madrid before. And this all took place in the bustling city center, where countless people were on their busy way to countless destinations.

A few years earlier, coming home from a gig, I'd gotten stuck in a snowbank in the most dangerous part of Queens, right next to a particularly notorious housing project. In sub-zero conditions at 4 in the morning. With $8000 of music and sound equipement in my car. Three figures appeared, out of nowhere, startling me at first, but it somehow was immediately clear that they were righting my car. A few minutes later, I was on my way. I tried to tip them and thank them, but they were gone. It was all so smooth and matter-of-fact that it would have been phenomenally easy to fail to notice what had happened. Again, too normal-seeming to jar me with the strangeness.

I have a handful of other such stories (one happened just today, in fact; once again, it wasn't immediately obvious how unaccountable the situation was, and it was only upon later reflexion that it dawned on me that there was no rational explanation). And I'm certain there've been plenty of times that the smooth ordinariness of unexplainable aid has lulled me into failing to register that anything strange had happened. No elderly magical black man winking at me, no radiant blonde babe with a wand. In fact, I can't remember any of the faces. They were all as if in my peripheral vision. Those are the guys who get your car out of the snowbank, that's all. And this is the guy who tells you where you're headed. Nothing remarkable. They blur into the background.

It should be no surprise that the other side of the equation is just as disquietingly humdrum.

I was friends, at age 9, with a 19-year-old. We went to movies and stuff. Eventually, she got married, and I got busy, and we fell out of touch. I'd heard that her son had died, that she'd gone through a nasty divorce, and had withdrawn from friends. But I hadn't spoken with her in 35 years.

One day, out of the blue, I thought of her. I did a web search, and found out that she'd been having health problems and money problems a few years ago. I couldn't verify that this was still the case, but I had an intuition that something needful was happening in the very moment.
I'll digress to offer a brief explanation of intuition. People often confuse it with hunches - i.e. random guesses we make about the state of something. But while hunches make you think, or worry, real intuition makes you act. The brain does not intermediate. You don't feel a suspicion of something, you feel the actual thing.

If I slow down my car while passing a restaurant and remark that it looks good, it probably is good. A good hunch! But if my car suddenly screeches to the curb and stops and I find myself getting out, without actual thinking, then the restaurant will be great. It's always great. It's never not great.

If you've never found yourself simply acting in some circumstance, without thinking, then you've never experienced true intuition. It most often occurs under great duress, when a deeper, calmer awareness seizes control for a moment. You can easily miss it when it happens. The deeper awareness doesn't call attention to itself. It doesn't change the flavor of things. It quietly steps forward and acts. It does what needs to be done, and then it fades. It's not at all remarkable (have you spotted the connection?)
I found myself writing a check an order of magnitude larger than I'd ordinarily offer to help an old friend, and I also found myself writing a note.
I won't reprint the note here, because very, very few people would understand it. I'll just say this: there are people whose lives have been a never-ending stream of undeserved calamities, and while such people often wind up broken and embittered, they may also wind up illuminated (this, it turns out, is a very touchy thing to remark out loud; I was once tar-and-feathered by a Facebook friend's circle for having offered this observation, so I'm far more careful now).

But even those lucky/unlucky few can forget the hard-won lesson, and be partially pulled back into the drama they'd previously learned to transcend. Such people need reminders, and we're such a vanishingly small group that there is really no place to go for reminding. So what I did was to remind her of this expensive insight, and I congratulated her for having earned it in the first place. How did I figure out she'd earned it, or that she needed reminding? I didn't. Sometimes the car screeches to a halt.
I dug up her address via the Internet, and sent my note. I heard back, and the message had, indeed, been just what she needed to hear; a reminder of something she'd already noticed. And the money had come at just the right time, as well. She asked to speak by phone, and we didn't exchange pleasantries or "catch up". It was as if none of those 35 years had gone by, and I simply got to it, restating, in several ways, that same reminder (which helped engrain it in my own mind more deeply, too). We said goodbye, and that was that. The entire interlude was normal, in a very strange way. Or, maybe, strange in a very normal way.

I'm figuring she hung up the phone, smiled, then, as she went about her day, asked herself "WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?" The entire thing was so matter-of-fact, while also completely unexplainable. I can't explain it, either. I just did what needed to be done, and it certainly wasn't my idea.

I've found myself in this position a few times (a word here, a pointer there, sometimes just a strategic smile), and found that people for the most part don't consciously notice. They distractedly accept the help and dozily move on to the next thing. Which is as it should be. If you spill entirely out of their peripheral vision to occupy clear central attention, you're not fully in the flow of it. That's a whole other thing. It's favor-doing, or do-gooding, or some other bold gesture stoking your ego (Superman, you'll remember, wore that super-bright suit; there was no missing him). It's highly explainable kindness.

There's really very little for me to say about any of this, either way. Sometimes the car screeches to the curb, and one gets out and enjoys radiant noodles. And that's just that. Attention-getting remarkableness is merely part of your personal drama. But the really good stuff? It barely registers.


fbj said...


David Foster Wallace's "Infinite jest" has a number of set pieces of writing. one of them is titled [roughly] "Things You Might Learn if you Ever Spend Time in a Halfway House."

it's typical -- in fact, I would say "archetypical" Wallace: the Theater of lists, one sharp observation after another , many startling, informative, many silly or trivial, and of course he just casually drops in those little bomblets that make the whole thing worth reading carefully.

The point of this being that

" may discover...that there are no actual angels but that there are people who might as well be angels...[......]...that if God does indeed choose to touch the earth, that he acts entirely through the agency of human beings...."

Jim Leff said...

Thanks for posting. I love David Foster Wallace, but I can't get through his stuff. Every sentence or two, my mind fills with ideas and I have to put the book down ands pursue creative thought streams. DFW is like an extreme catalyst for me, so I doubt I'll ever finish a book of his. This saddens me.

"God" is a red herring. We feel like we know what we're talking about when we use the term - when we drop the name - yet it's a concept only atheists really seem to have pinned down. For them, god is a bearded dude sitting on a cloud who obviously can't possibly exist. Easy-peasy! The rest of us get a little blurry, which is perfectly okay (Further reading: )

I wrote of "deeper awareness", and that's also a bit blurry. You can use other names, but when you start naming things, you turn them into concrete things, and, before you know it, you've turned subtle, abstract, non-verbal things into bearded dudes sitting on clouds.

I kept hammering on the extreme non-remarkability of what I'm talking about, and the problem with "God" is that we've made him remarkable. And, as I said at the end, remarkable stuff is just drama and hoo-haw. Just stuff.

Re: "the agency of human beings", if you spend time asking yourself what IS this human being (i.e. "Who am I?"), you will eventually become familiar with deeper awareness. Things get less and less remarkable as more and more remarkable things happen. From there, it's pointless to postulate about "human beings", "God", and free agency. Just let go into the flow of it all, whatever you call it.

And you'd be foolish to call it anything, because you can name only stale snapshots of the flow; the flow itself is just flow, and there's not much to remark about it. You can't name it.

This reply may appear to be a chopped salad of random thoughts and fuzzy connections. That's intentional. Anything straightforward I might say would be remarkable - dissectable, discussable, and ultimately comprehensible. Not flow, but stale snapshot.

Blog Archive