With apologies to Mitch Ablom, whose book The Five People You Meet in Heaven was a sweet and thoughtful retrospective on how lives intersect, I’m more interested in the People I Meet on Earth. Besides the fact that I’m pretty sure it won’t matter after I’m dead, I believe that taking the time to consider the people in my life now can help make a true heaven of my time on earth.
I know that I’ve certainly met some angels!
This past Sunday, I actually made the acquaintance of one by that very name – Angel – and at his side, his friend Daniel. A Biblical enough pair, Daniel and Angel walked into our UU church looking for others who might be receptive to Daniel’s economic plan to end joblessness and restore hope and faith to America. As a friend used to say, “Go big or go home!” Daniel is certainly going big, with nothing less than the fate of the nation in his sights.
It was Daniel’s 82nd birthday and the only gift he sought was someone to listen to him, and more important, someone to hear what he had to say. When I tried to encourage Daniel and Angel to join us in our service, just in progress, Daniel said no, no, he just wanted to talk to me, to learn if this was the kind of place he wanted to be.
And as I sat in our big church kitchen, at a table with the two of them, and listened to Daniel Roque, I found myself moving from doubt to curiosity and finally enchantment. As I watched Daniel, and listened to him, I began to see and hear elements of my friend Rob, and the hole he left in my heart filled a bit. Daniel has every ounce of Rob’s zeal and energy, every bit of his determination to do something, something that makes a difference, something that matters and has a long lasting impact, and he seems to share Rob’s insistence that everyone join him on his social justice journey.
Daniel, a warm and compassionate man with friendly eyes, sees economic equality as the manifestation of God’s love, the chance for everyone to be successful and safe, and free from want. His hard-of -hearing Angel never left his side. As in Rob’s case, I found myself returning to Quixotic analogies, and although the resemblance to Sancho Panzo and Don Quixote was undeniable, this Quixote was armed with Excel Spreadsheets.
Driven, for the past 17 years, to refine and develop his economic plan, the International Private Mutual Welfare Trust , Daniel wants the opportunity to put it to the test, to show its value and potential, and Angel wants nothing more than for Daniel to experience the fulfillment of his life’s work. Together they are the embodiment of all things good and wonderful, two lifelong friends, united in shared passions and interests, dedicated to making something good happen in the world, and to sharing that goodness with others.
Looking and listening more closely, I found where Daniel’s work intersects with my own and has applications in a LIFE entrepreneurial learning project. When I moved from reserve and doubt, as I listened to Daniel and Angel, I found delight – delight in Daniel’s warm eyes, in his obvious sincerity and authenticity, in the energy and passion he brings to the world. And it occurred to me, not for the first time, and hopefully not for the last, that the more open you are to life, the more meaningful and wonderful life you can live. Every person you meet is an opportunity – for love, warmth, humor, knowledge, insight and joy.
Similarly, when I sat in a front row seat at TEDxYouth@TampaBay a couple of weeks ago, and just opened myself up to what our young presenters brought to the stage – thoughts, music, ideas, insights – I found myself enraptured; particularly with Devante Robinson and Matthew Temmer, each of whom came to the TEDxYouth experience eager but unsure.
Working with Devante to narrow his topic from initially broad outrage with “everything wrong with youth today” (this from an 18 year old), became an opportunity to find shared experiences, to look back on my own beginnings and recognize similar yearnings in Devante, and similar self-reflection in wondering what made us different. Mathew, a soft spoken, almost diminutive looking young man, was taking on the seemingly ironic topic of “giving youth a voice.” I was unsure how he’d be compelling when his own voice seemed so quiet and uncertain.
Yet his words, in his topic outline, were bold and positive, and I came to believe and trust whole heartedly in both Devante and Matthew on the power of their convictions, sure that they would rise to the challenge with guidance, support and confidence, which is exactly what happened. Devante’s presentation was spot on, delivered with surety and confidence. Matthew more than found his voice, and it was powerful and moving.
Encouraging people to speak and actually being willing to hear them can be a moving, thought provoking and heart warming experience, often in unexpected ways
Take Hugh, another one of those remarkable people I’ve met on Earth. Hugh has been coming to my door about once a month for over two years now. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness, and often has another Witness with him, Mary sometimes, or Betty or Joe. A tall, stately, distinguished and well dressed gentleman, with a soft Jamaican accent, the first time I met Hugh at the door it was with the intention of politely turning him away. But as I listened to his introduction and watched his face, I was moved by his sincerity, by his commitment to his beliefs, and his gentleness in sharing them. I found myself wondering what it must be like to believe in something so deeply that you’re willing to risk censure and worse going door to door to share them.
Hugh has never asked for anything, never tried to persuade me to agree with anything. He just greets me by name , and talks softly and sweetly about God’s love, reads a Bible verse to me and hands me a Watch Tower Magazine. I smile at him and thank him for coming by, and we chat about my grown kids, my mother-in-law who he knows lives with us, about the weather.
Hugh’s visits rarely last more than five minutes. Sometimes I can take time to chat with him and his companion. Sometimes I can’t. Always, they’re kind, warm and sincere. Once, when Mary was with him, she said she wished everyone would be so open to their words as I was. I wonder if I’m leading them on, standing on the front step, agreeing that the more open we are to God’s love, the better our lives will be. Does Hugh keep coming by because he thinks he’s winning me over, or just because I’m willing to listen?
I’m a UU and a Humanist. I don’t believe in the Biblical Christian salvation. But I do believe in the power of human love and compassion to create the daily miracle of life. And I wonder if just by listening to Hugh, perhaps I deepen both my Humanistic beliefs and his Christian ones, and we have somehow found the intersection between the two, the common ground connecting human hearts.
Sometimes, though, the people you meet on Earth seem anything but angelic; they’re harbingers of frustration and conflict, more than anything else. My live in in-law, MILlie, comes to mind. I often struggle to find solid footing on the shifting ground of my feelings about her. She’s my complete polar opposite in everything from politics and social views, to spiritual and philosophical ones.
It’s easy to feel compelled and enriched by the likes of Rob and Helen, Daniel and Angel, Devante and Matthew and Hugh. But what about the MILlies in our lives, the self-absorbed, short sighted, bigoted and sometimes downright mean people we meet on earth? Where do they fit in?
I think they are gurus of a sort, and can be as powerful motivators as the others, albeit for different reasons and in different ways. MILlie constantly challenges me to be a better person, to rise above pettiness and menial slights. The MILlies in my life compel me to try to find some common ground, some shared kernel of humanity where we can connect. It might be fleeting, sometimes, but it’s there, and if I can see it in these most difficult of people, however briefly, I am, however briefly, a better person for it.
The people we meet on Earth are truly remarkable if we take the time to be fully aware of them. And when we can look up and see ourselves in their faces, reflected in their eyes, and united in our shared humanity, then we have truly made a heaven of Earth.