Exterminating Angel

One dark and stormy night, taking advantage of the enforced intimacy that comes when a hurricane knocks the power out and trees are down in the roads and all you can do is huddle near the wood stove, I asked the young man who is now my son-in-law what he learned from his study of theoretical physics.  I mean what about string theory and the 11th dimension and what not might be applied to everyday life.

I immediately regretted this blurt, fearing that it might come across as a bluntly American/ New Yorky kind of challenge–whaddyagonnado wit all dis stuff?   Plus, he had already been through a lot.  In the space of a week, the poor English lad had experienced a mild earthquake, a hurricane, and major power outage.  “Tell him we like to show our foreign guests a really big time,” said my father.

To my relief he answered immediately.  “No one is special,” he said.  He explained (and I paraphrase) that in light of the inconceivable vastness of reality,  in light of our inconceivably infinitesimal teeny weaniness in relation to it all, the very idea of insisting on any kind of singular and isolated specialness is just completely ridiculous.

I believed this was true, but it haunted me.  In the light of this all this vastness, what matters, what can guide us?  Near the end of my recent amazing trip to India, the answer suddenly and unexpectedly fell into place.

I was at a party in Mumbai. It was a beautiful night in every sense.  The apartment was full of art and music and opened onto a big terrace overlooking the Arabian sea.  The night air was soft and the air scented with an unnamable combination of spices and all the people gathered there seemed to be very accomplished and creative, but also searching and questioning in a sincere way.   The conversation turned to what it takes to live a life that matters.

In the end, nothing matters, and no one, said an attractive older woman who managed to combine approachable warmth with a regal bearing. In light of eternity, nothing and no one matters, not Gandhi, no one.  She had everyone’s attention.  Passion matters, she added, and the sense was that she meant being connected with what you were doing, being in alignment with a meaning beyond yourself.

She spoke quietly but firmly, not arguing a point but sharing a hard won truth.   The conversation rolled on in to the subject of changing paths from money to meaning, to the chance encounters that sparked this change (one man there left the Wharton School for music after an encounter with an exterminating angel–literally, a bug exterminator who sat down and talked to him about what really mattered).  The quiet words that woman said burrowed into me like a really beneficial virus.

I think people can come into our lives like guiding angels (this particular angel was not an exterminator but a distinguished Indian business woman).  With a few remarks she helped me see that the guide I was really looking for was an inner guide.  The guide was knowing whether we are really in alignment with a greater energy, whether we are really outside the prison of self, engaged in the dance of life, open to vastness.

10 thoughts on “Exterminating Angel

  1. This beautiful reflection reminds me of the words of Marcus Aurelius:

    “In no time at all you will be ashes, a skeleton, or perhaps just a name – or not even a name, for a name is just an empty sound or a faint echo. The things which are valued in life are empty…But we see that trust, modesty before the gods, justice, and truth have, in the poet’s words, ‘fled to Olympus, far away from the wide expanse of earth.’ What is it, then, which holds you here…to honor and praise the gods, to act well towards others, practicing tolerance and self-restraint; since all that lies within the limits of mere flesh and spirit is neither yours nor in your power?”

    Or in a significantly lighter vein, in the words – paraphrased – of the lovable cartoon character Ziggy:
    “We could eliminate half of the world’s neuroses by skipping the nightly news!”


    Smile – it just might do you good…

  2. Not to take away from your beautiful trip and revelation, but I lived in India. I sincerely hope that the passion of that enlightened business woman was the health, feeding, clothing and sheltering of the hundreds of millions of Indian souls who struggle to survive in a society and economy that give them little to hope for.

    1. Yes, Jeff. Service is definitely part of her passion. The founder/head of Teach for India (as well as the head Teach for America) was at the gathering and many other people engaged in Gandhi-inspired acts of service. I was told after the party that the woman who spoke was the funder. Service is a crucial part of this alignment–I don’t think it can ever be just for self.

      1. Tracy, that’s nice. There is so much almost inconceivable suffering in that country. Our little Western spiritual moments seem somewhat precious in comparison. Forgive me…

      2. Jeff, I understand. The people I happened to be surrounded by had a way of focussing on what could be transformed right in the moment, right in that seemingly hopeless situation, small, small changes. It was as if the spirit of Gandhi was informing them. It shifted the way I think…I hope.

  3. Hi Tracy,
    It calls to mind Joseph Campbell “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness” or indeed my asking an old friend “how do you pray” and her answer was to do everything, no matter how menial for the Greater Good, truly living in the moment.
    I don’t think we have to renounce all, we can still live well in the world, within our circumstances, within our society.

    1. We can turn away from self and towards acts of kindness, giving, service right where we are, can’t we, Fiona? Just giving a smile can bring a huge shift in perspective…in fact, small acts can bring huge changes over time.

  4. We surely can-that choice is in front of us at every given moment. Every journey begins with the first step.


  5. I was thinking this morning about what holds us back from giving or indeed receiving, the self protective shell we build around ourselves and how difficult it is to reach out either to give or receive. Fear of being rebuffed or rejected or being beholden. I can conjour up a string of rationalisations for inactivity/non engagement, feel overwhelmed by the extent of poverty on a global basis and walk by my elderly neighbour who is struggling to put out her rubbish for the garbage truck to collect.
    The 12 step recovery group Alcoholics Anonymous has a statement of purpose “I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that: I am responsible.” Anyone, anywhere………………….. am responsible.


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