The Angels We Hate

I recently ran across an album on my computer that I didn’t remember having — Fearless Love, by Melissa Etheridge.  In a song called “Only Love,” Etheridge claims “Only Love is Real; Everything is Love.”  In one verse of that song, she sings:

Come on now show me who you’re lovin’,  then show me just who you hate.  Then I can show you all your angels, that guard your heaven’s gate.

In those four simple lines, Etheridge managed to expand my understanding of angels and integrate a couple of concepts that have been on my mind quite a bit lately: heaven and angels.

The “heaven’s gate” to which Etheridge refers reminds me of the description of heaven that Rabbi Rami Shapiro provides in The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness.  Rabbi Shapiro states that heaven and hell “are not ontological realities tucked away somewhere in space — these are existential realities playing out in your own mind.”

And what, according to Rabbi Shapiro, determines whether we reside in the heaven or the hell inside us?

If you choose [to live from a place of] kindness, love, generosity, and joy, then you will discover in that choice the Kingdom of God, heaven, nirvana, this worldly salvation. If you choose [to approach life with] cruelty, fear, scarcity, and bitterness, then you will discover in that choice the hellish states of which so many religions speak.

Rabbi Shapiro and Etheridge appear to agree: (1) heaven is an existential reality inside a person, and (2) entry into that heaven is determined by our own emotional state.  Nevertheless, their conceptions of how our emotional states permit us to enter into heaven appear different – Rabbi Shapiro asserts entry is controlled by our general attitude and approach to life, while Etheridge suggests our entry is controlled by our angels.

I can’t hear the term “angels” without thinking about Rabbi Lawrence Kushner who, in his book Honey from the Rock, explained:  “The Hebrew word for angel is malach.  Which also means messenger.  One who is sent.”  Rabbi Kushner asserts that anyone who brings a Holy Message to another person is an angel and that each of us has been assigned the task of delivering at least one Holy Message during our lifetimes.

What is a Holy Message? According to Rabbi Kushner, it’s a “puzzle piece” that helps us figure out ourselves, our lives, or perhaps even the meaning of Life.  Kushner’s angels, in other words, are figures who bring us “ah-ha” moments or cause us to think about (or re-think) important issues.  They may appear in our lives just long enough to hand us a piece of Truth and then disappear immediately, or they may remain in our lives for years and years.

Regardless how long they stay, I had imagined our relationships to the angels Kushner described to be positive or, at the least, neutral.  I never thought of those angels as people we hate.  Yet this is precisely who Etheridge alleges are the angels that “guard” …which I understand to mean “block”… our entrance into our personal heaven.

If people we hate block our entrance to heaven, how do we get them out of the way, so that we can walk through the gate and live each day in our personal, existential Heaven???

Etheridge doesn’t tell us specifically, but she repeatedly tells us “Everything is Love.”  Could that annoyingly simple statement contain the solution?  Could it be that the only way to remove an angel blocking our heaven’s gate is to learn to love, rather than to hate, that person??  Despite our urge to avoid and flee the presence of people who annoy us, could it be that we need to pay more attention, so that we can learn the lesson they came to teach us??

Such an interpretation would be consistent with what we find in Pirke Avot (Sayings of Our Fathers) 4.1:  “Who is wise?  The one who learns from everyone.”  In other words, we should respect and learn from everyone, because the next message we need for our journey could come from anyone — an elder or a child, a scholar or someone illiterate, a stranger or a friend, those we love or, yes, even those we hate.

Why might a person we hate have an important life lesson for us?  Well, as Freud explained years ago, we humans use a number of “defense mechanisms” to protect our egos from our improper impulses or from our anxiety about our own weaknesses and failures.  For example, we may hate others because we see in them something that we do not like in ourselves.  Sometimes we even project onto others the traits we least like in ourselves!

But if we can step sufficiently outside our egos and ignore our defenses, we may be able to see that the other person does not deserve our hatred, because our frustration really is with ourselves.

Or, to say it another way, if we can stop worrying about why someone else behaves in a way that is so annoying, and start focusing instead on why we are so annoyed by that other person, then we have an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and to grow.

Through the process of introspection and growth, as we begin to better understand ourselves and others, we develop more compassion and become less annoyed by that angel we hated and by ourselves – at which point, it seems to me, we will have received “the puzzle piece” brought to us by that angel, so that angel will no longer be blocking our heaven’s gate.  Filled with new joy, kindness, and love for ourselves and for others, just as Rabbi Shapiro said we needed to be, we will be able to walk through the unguarded gate and relax in our own personal existential heaven.

The Angels We Hate really can help us learn more about ourselves and about life, and once we are able to receive the puzzle piece they bring, we will be able to see that underneath our hate was love.

“Only Love is Real; Everything is Love.”

Baruch HaShem.

Internalizing “Oneness”

One evening last month, as Cherie and I flipped through channels broadcasting mind-numbing television shows, we ran across the premier of a new game show on NBC, “Take it All”.  We caught only the last fifteen minutes, during which the remaining two contestants were faced with the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” — the gaming-theory technique whereby two individuals must decide independently whether to cooperate, and their decisions impact whether and how much each wins:  If both decide to “share”, each receives her individual prizes (i.e., both win); if both decide to “take it all”, neither gets anything (i.e., both lose); but if one decides to “share”, while the other says “take it all”, the person who said “take it all” gets the winnings of both players, while the person willing to share gets nothing.

The game show contestants were likable people — an older gentleman who wanted to use whatever winnings he obtained to help send his grandchildren to college, and a woman who wanted to purchase books for a school or underprivileged children or some such worthy cause.  Clearly both were well-intentioned people, respectable people, people trying to “do the right thing” in this confusing world.

As the man discussed what he was thinking about the decision between “sharing” and “taking it all”, he said: “For me to arrogantly say, ‘I’ll take it all,’ is to spit in G-d’s face.”  Because the man so clearly expressed that he would share, the woman decided to “take it all” . . . and take it all she did.  The woman was incredibly excited that she had won even more money for books.

I can’t stop wondering whether the extra books were worth the “price” that she paid for them.  Nor have I stopped being sad about the fact that she seemed to not even comprehend that she had paid a price . . . a price the rest of us are paying it with her.

I can imagine many people would tell me to calm down because it’s just a game show — but is it just a game show???   Gaming theory isn’t just about creating games; it is about trying to help us understand how and why people make the decisions that they do.

And Prisoner’s Dilemma does occur in real world contexts, probably more often than we have noticed.  Children on a playground who always “take it all” are bullies who eventually have no friends.  People always willing to share become doormats … because others are more than happy to “take it all” more often than they should.  The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is fueled by extremists on both sides of the conflict who refuse to share, whose “all or nothing” mentality creates a living hell for millions of people who really are willing to share.

Is it always easy to find the middle ground so that compromise can be made?  No!

Is it easier to see everything as “black and white,” and to stand firm in our belief that the solution that benefits us, regardless of the cost to the other, is the only viable or reasonable solution?  Of course it is!

But when will we, as individuals and as a society, finally accept that the easy solution is not working????

Sharing.

Compromising.

Respecting the needs and feelings of the other.

Recognizing that peace – between individuals and between nations – will occur only when all involved parties accept that “take it all” is no longer a viable response.

Knowing that each of our decisions has long-term consequences for how we, and others, will decide in the future.

Believing that the fate of each of us is intertwined, such that I cannot reach my highest potential without simultaneously helping you reach your highest potential.

Understanding that every person is part of The One.

Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

On “Take It All,” the male contestant stood there and told the female that to take it all was to spit in G-d’s face, and she chose to spit.   His message really was for all of us.  The next time we have to decide whether to “share” or to “take it all,” what will we choose?