Angels Unaware

When I began to write this blog, I misspelled the title of this blog with “Angers” instead of “Angels,” which is what I intended to write. This mistake seemed to fit with the essence of what I have to say about “angels,” not “angers.” It makes me wonder if anger and angels are opposites that are sometimes mistaken for each other….

The quote comes from the New Testament book of Hebrews (13.2) in which the author suggests that gifts are to be given generously because the recipient of such a gift might be someone special. The exact quote is, “Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” This verse follows the first verse in the chapter where the author suggests that we love the people we already know, now adding that it might be good to love people that we don’t know. It is interesting that the book of Hebrews is the only biblical written by an anonymous author.

Deb and I have not so much been the givers of hospitality to strangers, but having been the recipients of hospitality as strangers, perhaps to “angels unaware.” These “angels” are yet in our minds and hearts, perhaps forever, but certainly over the past three months, months that have been ones of grieving, sharing grief, recovering from grief, and certainly not entirely finishing grief over the loss of our daughter, Krissie who died on August 21st of this year. Allow me to tell you of some of these “angels.” I must admit I am unsure of the order of these appearances, but perhaps there is no “order” to such things that are heavenly sent.

Deb and I, “low boundary” (P people for those of you familiar with the Myers-Briggs) as we are, took a trip “west” a few weeks ago. We told our friends that we were going “west,” which usually led to “where,” to which we usually responded in repetition, “West.” Again, some people found it necessary to ask, “West, where?” to which we responded again with “West.” Yes, we wanted to go “west” but had no idea of “where west” or how far west. We weren’t entirely sure we were going west, but had concluded that we would travel on one of our favorite roads, U.S. Highway 2 that runs just south of the Canada border crossing various states along the way. We had wanted to visit several spots, one or two in particular and started in northern Minnesota.

It was in this very special spot near Bemidji, MN where we had perhaps the richest “angel experience.” Just south of Bemidji you can visit a state park that includes the headwaters of the Mississippi River. This is quite fun because the Great River actually starts with a one foot waterfall that is about 20 feet across, so you can “walk across the Mississippi River” if you want to do so. Deb and I spent some delightful time at the headwaters, then headed back to park station to check for books and such and while heading out towards the car Deb said “I am not done, let’s go back and cross the waters”. So, we did, and again, it was great. We then decided to talk a short walk on one of the trails which, of course, in the autumn was rick in scent and color. As we neared the path to the waters. one of us, we don’t know which, said out loud what the other was obviously thinking and feeling – this would be a wonderful place to “let some of Krissie go”. It wasn’t even an agreement, it was more of a spontaneous spiritual discovery, and so I went back to the car to get some of Krissie’s cremains. As I came back to the headwaters, Deb greeted me and said she had found just the place. Whether due to our spontaneity or by God’s design for us, when we got to the headwaters with Krissie in hand, there was the angel unaware. We were unaware that she was an angel and I doubt she knew that she was an angel. Deb looked around briefly for someone who might be willing to take some picture and spotted a woman who was just standing near the pool and went up to her and inquired “might I ask a favor? Would you take a picture of us, our daughter died and…” before Deb could finish her explanation of intent, the woman put her hands to her heart, began crying and then fully embraced Deb with a lingering hug. Then with me beside her, she looked at both of us and exclaimed “I am so sorry for your great loss”. “Thank you for asking me, it is such a privilege to do this with you”. She took Deb’s phone and we waded into the waters holding hands.  We each let Krissie go and then still hand in hand, we both let some of her go simultaneously.  We cried and hugged in the water, in fact forgetting that an angel was there for us.  When we came back out of the water, this picture-taking, hug-giving, compassionate angel handed back our phone and again, said “thank for this honor to be a part of your daughter’s journey”. We were hugged again by this picture-taking, hug-giving, compassionate angel and departed having been the recipient of this angel unawares. We know not her name, her face, nor her station in life. Perhaps she has a heavenly station.

Deb and I had a somewhat similar encounter when we were hiking on a trail not far from our “up north” cabin, a  hike that we had many times  taken with Krissie and her children over the many years we had the pleasure of Krissie and her children at the  cabin. Again, we were scattering some of Krissie over a much larger waterfall, this time in northern Wisconsin. After we scattered Krissie, a young woman, observing our embraces inquired if it would be too much of an intrusion if she took our picture for us, commenting on our tenderness. Again, Deb engaged her with appreciation and began to explain “Yes, please, that would mean more than you can know, we just let some of our daughter’s ashes go…”  the words were barely out of her mouth before that young woman, Erica, immediately spoke to her friend about 15 feet away, “Ashely, come, we need to pray!” Ashley didn’t even blink an eye, came right up and followed Erica’s lead, forming a foursome of hand holding. These two women, probably close to Krissie’s age, prayed for us and for Krissie and all who loved and knew her. Again, we don’t know much about these two praying angels, but we know they ministered to us in ways unfathomable.  Ashely and Erica, along with the woman at the headwaters will forever be in our hearts.

I was walking out of my office a few weeks ago, walking a bit slower now, and was nearly at the door of the lobby that enters the stairway to the outside of the office building. As I walked by, a friendly older woman looked up at me, smiled, and wished me a good evening.” That small gesture somehow affected me emotionally as I started to walk downstairs, but then I found that I needed to return to the third floor and “finish” this encounter. So I did just that, walked upstairs, opened the lobby door and said to this unknown woman, “May I just say, ‘thank you’ for your kind gesture.’ My daughter recently died and…,” and just as before, this woman previously (and since then) unknown to me, stood up and asked if she could hug me, and said, as so many other angels have said, “I’m so sorry.” We looked at each other’s eyes, both of us misty, and said nothing else.” I wished her a good day.

There have been so many of these brief angel moments, most of them similar with the hand-to-heart, gasp of “I am so sorry” and the must-hug response. Deb had several of them in her favorite coffee haunts: Starbucks.  First, just days after Krissie died she was in line in a store not her usual, and the barista asked how her day was going. Deb, still so distraught but not wanting to explain just said “hard day”.  The barista paused, looked at her and asked, are you okay? Deb hesitantly began “my daughter died a few days ago….” Then somewhat to Deb’s surprise the lady was gone! It was but seconds before Deb realized she had walked around the counter and was putting her arms around her. In hindsight, Deb seems to think that the barista floated over the counter for it was so immediate.  Again, about a month ago Deb was in her favorite Starbucks close to our Monona office and saw one of the baristas she had not seen for a while and began chatting and learned that the barista had recently been appointed manager. As the short conversation ensured, Blaire, knowing Deb travels a bit, asked if she had been anywhere, or if anything special had been happening in her life.  Deb told her about Krissie having died a couple of months earlier and that was all it took. Blaire asked Deb if she could come around the counter and hug her. Yes indeed, you may, yes indeed.

This very morning in church, I had two male friends come up to me, ask genuinely how I was, both hugging me, one kissing me on the cheek.” A Sunday morning three months ago, just after Krissie’s death, I happened to be in church on a day I was scheduled to preach but was replaced by the friend who kissed me today. He spoke that day that he was pleasantly surprised to see me in church. I felt moved, bowed my head, and without any preparation was surrounded by no less than six or seven men who put their hands on me as David said a few words in my behalf from the pulpit. Angels aware, I guess.

Other angels aware came in the form of emails, cards, letters, and texts, but even there, there might have some who were “unaware” as occasionally, Deb or I would say to the other, “Who is this Kenny who sends his condolences” when we opened a card together. We don’t know Kenny.  He obviously knows us, as all angels know us all.

Thanks to all, aware and unaware.

Temperament IX: Opportunities and Challenges for Caretakers

This is the last of nine blogs on “temperament,” the general approach that people take in life. We have previously discussed four “temperaments” as I have conceived of them for several decades beginning when I began to use the term “players” for people who seemed naturally inclined to excitement, adventure, play, and most of all, experience. You might find it valuable to review the blogs on the four temperaments that I discuss including players (seeking experience most of all), lovers (seeking connection), analysts (seeking meaning), and caretakers (seeking the care of property). I have discussed the basic natures of each of these four temperaments noting how they see the world, how they evaluate the world, how they communicate to the world, and how they engage the world. Following these initial explorations of the basic natures, I then proceeded with the opportunities and challenges that each temperament has. I now come to the last of these discussions of opportunities and challenges, that of people I call “caretakers.”

Review of caretakers

As I conceive of these four temperaments (caretakers, lovers, players, and analysts), I see people who roughly (or thoroughly) fall into one of these categories love something. Lovers love (human) connection, players love experience, analysts love meaning, and caretakers love property. You may recall that I see myself primarily as a caretaker. I was bemused a few months ago when Deb and I were giving a lecture about our recently published book, I asked if anyone in the audience (of about 100) “loved property more than people.” There were no raised hands. I was bemused by this, but certainly understood the reticence of people admitting that they just might love property more than people. Then I noted that I was such a person, and then saw people look at me aghast as if I had just spoken some kind of psychological heresy. We didn’t have time to unpack my statement about “loving property,” but it is indeed true that people with my orientation towards the caretaker temperament have a deep value of property, primarily human-made property.

This orientation towards property leads us into the current discussion of “opportunities and challenges” that we caretakers have in the world. So, consider in your own mind first, whether you might be such a person. You might find it a bit embarrassing to see, much less admit, that you really love property. If you are distinctly not a caretaker by nature, you might consider that you are related in some way to such a person, perhaps a parent or a spouse. If that is the case, you might now note how you feel towards that person. You might discover that you think something is wrong with him/her. I have found that people tend to revere my caretaking orientation and abilities, on the one hand, and find my orientation to property boring at the least, and perhaps appalling at the most.

So, let’s first look at the opportunities of caretakers.

A note of history

The opportunities for caretakers abound, at least in this country (U.S.), a country that was essentially founded on property and work that protected and improved upon the property. If we look at American history, both the good and the bad, we can see that both the successes and failures of America have largely been related to property. This view then gives us a picture of the opportunities and challenges that caretakers have in America, and to a lesser degree, other countries. Consider what you see and hear when you go through a day. I purport that you see things. I might even suggest that when you see people, you see people having things, looking at things, caring for things, or doing things. I believe this things orientation that is so American is not so predominant in other countries except, perhaps where American property orientation has been imported. Consider, for instance, how the Native Americans originally viewed property, particularly land. They did not “own” land. They may have occupied it for a season or two, but the land belonged to the Spirit, or perhaps to the People at large. (Most Native Americans had names for their tribes what could be translated into “The People” rather than to the names that Northern Europeans came to call them.) But from the very beginning of the Northern European invasion of what came to be called the United States had a distinct orientation towards the acquisition, protection of, and enhancement of property. There were elements of the philosophical types who we might call analysts, certainly the player types who might have been the Lewis and Cark’s and the Daniel Boone’s of America exploring the West, and people of a lover temperament among them, but the predominant feature of the country from its very beginning and continuing into the present has had to do with property. Property first. Everything else second: that would include loving people, loving ideas, and loving experience. This leads us to the next discussion:

The opportunities for caretakers

They abound. The opportunities abound in America. Note the thousands of “startups” that are much the rage. Note the independent workers much the rage. Note the “work from home” way of work is that is more and more common. Note the opportunities for making money (which is essentially property) that is all the rage. Then note that there seems to be no end of this rage that is so intrinsic to property acquisition and management, but we will delay this discussion until we face the challenges that caretakers have. My point here is that America (by which I mean predominantly the U.S.) gives us caretakers a wide berth in going about life because America is so property-based. I have found that I “fit in” with just about any group and any ensuing conversation because talk almost always goes to what one has or what one has done. Having and Doing are the central ingredients of the caretaker temperament. Let’s look at some of what is the fabric of American society:

  • Academic: What is the basic orientation towards most of elementary school through high school? Achievement, grades, and finishing a degree. I aver that most of such school is very production oriented, or doing-based. This made school quite easy for me, especially in elementary and high school, most of college and most of graduate school. I knew, for instance, that I needed to be “Dr. Johnson” so I raced through my doctorate in two years. Didn’t learn much, but I finished. Compare that achievement, if we even call it such, with Deb, the analyst, who took 10 years to do the same even though she is the smarter of the two of us. Deb was interested in learning. I was interested in doing. Pity the poor analyst kids (I see many in my office) who are looking for meaning, much less the players looking for experience.
  • Vocational: Work is about “doing”, right? Not necessarily. What work does a math researcher do when s/he is trying to find the answer to a complex math problem? S/he is not “doing” anything, really. I was bemused many years ago when I discovered that the math “research lab” on the top floor of the math building was just a lounge with blackboards (remember those?) on every wall. Aside from these math types and many other researchers, philosophers, and the like, most of us think of work being equal to production, care, or enhancement of property. Pity the poor guy who cares about people, ideas, and experience if he is in a doing job. I recall a gentleman a saw recently who was a player by nature but struggling to get his accounting degree because he “could make a lot of money as an accountant.” I know of a current patient who makes nearly six figures doing a job he “hates” but can’t seem to give up his current income to change careers to do something that he dreams of doing and might be might be quite good at. Vocation is much easier for caretakers like me because we can do most anything.
  • Family. When I ask people what is important to them, I always have in mind the four elements of the four temperaments: property (caretakers), connections (lovers), experience (players), and meaning (analysts). But when I ask people what is important to them, I almost always hear “family” regardless of what their temperament really is. The idea of “family” is so central in the current psychology of the country that it dominates what people think is really important. When people think of family, they almost immediately think of taking care of their families with property and money. They don’t think of experience, meaning, and connection so much as they think of stuff. When I think about “family,” I think of taking care of the property that I have, they have, or we have. I have been thinking much lately about how I can protect and preserve my property so that my surviving child and grandchildren might use this property when I die.
  • Fun. What is fun for people? When we think of “fun,” most of us think of doing Deb and I are finishing up a bit of vacation as we speak and we think we might do something today, like play miniature golf or go to a movie. Lovers might just think of snuggling on the couch or having an intimate conversation. Players might think of rock climbing or playing hockey. Analysts might just think.

So, in general, the opportunities for caretakers are many. Especially early in life. What about the challenges?

Challenges for caretakers

The most important thing to say about the challenges for caretakers is that the first part of life, and perhaps the first two-thirds of life, is pretty easy for the likes of caretakers because so much of America is designed for their doing things and caring for property. It is in the later stages of life that caretakers tend to get bogged down. They get bogged down with property and doing. Furthermore, people of other temperaments get bogged down with property, money, and the security that such things brings to people, like the guys I just mentioned making a lot of money or wanting to make a lot of money doing something that they don’t really like. Let me examine the tendencies that caretakers have when things get bogged down:

  • Too much property. Because caretakers take care of property and spend an inordinate amount of time acquiring property, they usually have much more than they need. Then they have to paint, insure, protect, and otherwise care for all this property. It can be a burden. I am working diligently to use, sell, or give away much of the property I have acquired over my years of life.
  • Aging. Now that I am 75 and fast approaching 76 I note that I simply can’t do what I used to do. This, of course, is true of all people, but for us caretakers it is a burden more than for most because we can’t do what we have always done: everything. I am now seeing a very caretaker-by-nature man of 50 something who had a tragic accident that left him unable to use his legs at all and much limitation with his hands. He is beside himself as to how to find a way to do something that is meaningful when meaning has always been working 12 hours a day and then some. You don’t have to be physically impaired to note that you can’t do what you used to do with aplomb.
  • Angry. This young (he is 50 something as I noted) man is quite angry. He is angry at life, at himself, his wife, and perhaps God for the predicament he is in because he can’t do what he has always done. But he is not the only angry caretaker I have known, sadly including me. It took me years to overcome the tendency to get angry when I couldn’t do something or someone else didn’t do something. Life was all about doing, and since I thought everyone should be like me, just do shit, I got angry when they didn’t do. I had a conversation with a like-minded concrete guy who is working on a project at our house. We both agreed that “the younger generation doesn’t know much about work,” which just might mean work=doing things.
  • Lost relationships. I know of many caretakers who were so good at doing things, that they couldn’t maintain a successful relationship, which ideally would include all the ingredients previously mentioned: connection, meaning, and experience. A woman who just works all the time, whether at home or at work may not notice that her spouse and children miss some of the other ingredients like connection, meaning, and experience. I hear from people that their spouses “just don’t have any time for me.”

Aside from these specific challenges caretakers face, the greater challenge is for them to develop beyond their basic nature. This doesn’t mean that they give up their love of property. It means that they give up their singular love of property and develop love of connection, meaning, and experience. Likely, a caretaker will have what we call a “secondary temperament,” which might be player, lover, or analyst, so developing other loves apart from property might start with one’s secondary temperament. It is much harder, however to develop the really undeveloped natures that are so rich in people of other temperaments. It is hard for a caretaker to take Buddha’s alleged statement, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” As it a challenge for a person of any temperament to develop secondary and tertiary elements of his/her psychological nature, it is essential. The other three temperaments often suffer for the lack of doing and producing: analysts can end up having everything possible but nothing real; lovers can have love for everyone but not ever do anything, and players having all kinds of experiences but not accomplish anything of lasting value. Caretakers need to learn to love more than property.

Sharing Grief

You might know that my daughter, Krissie, died just a few weeks ago. Understandably, this event has had a rather profound effect on me, as well as others who knew Krissie, both family and friends. The effect on me, and of course on others, has been one of grief. These past six weeks has been extraordinary as I have been grieving…and sharing grief with others.

The blog I published just yesterday was on the I-You-Me theory I have discovered over the recent years, namely how people of different natures have different ways of establishing and maintaining relationships. Simply put, I find that there are three predominant ways that people “relate” one another, namely with what I have called “I-first” people, “You-first” people, and “We-first” people. (There are also some subsets of these basic three kinds of relating discussed in the previous blog.) I-first people begin a relationship on what they feel, think, and do; and then they tend to make statements about themselves. You-first people begin a relationship with what the other person thinks, feels, or does; and then they tend to ask questions of the other person. We-first people tend to wait until something happens in the relationship, whether one of words or actions as they look the find what they call a “connection” with the other person. I have admitted that I am an I-first person.

Sadness and Grieving

You may be aware that Deb and I wrote a book entitled The Positive Power of Sadness not long ago, which is a rendering of what we have come to believe is the most important, and the most love-based emotion in the human experience, namely sadness. We have come to believe that this love-based emotion comes about singularly when there has been a loss, specifically a loss of something that the person has loved. As we note in our book this loss can be of person, property, or idea. While most people think that the loss of a person is the most profound loss, people can feel just as much sadness when they lose property or an idea does not work as they hoped that it would. Deb and I continue to assist every one of our patients with facing the losses that they have experienced in life, and in so doing avoid the tendency to fall into the emotions of fear and anger or the condition of depression. So we know quite a bit about sadness, and frankly speaking, are pretty good at feeling sadness instead of anger and fear. Anger, by the way is the emotion that occurs when I have lost something in the past, and fear is the emotion that occurs when I consider that I might lose something in the future.

Our ongoing journey of grief

This has been a remarkable journey indeed, and it has been particularly remarkable one for me because I am the I-first person noted above and in my previous blog. Recall that I-first people tend to establish and maintain relationships with statements, usually statements about what they think, feel, or do. So, during these past six weeks I have done just that and have found something quite remarkable, and seemingly quite memorable. The remarkable thing about these weeks of grieving is how I have felt the value of the relationships I have established, mostly built upon people’s kindness, generosity, and selflessness as they have shared my grief, and very often Deb’s and my shared grief. I think I have found what We-first people seek all the time, namely the connection that two (or more) people can have when one person shares something with another person. In the case of this past few weeks, the sharing has been of our grief, but we have also had times of sharing joys with many people. This “connection” that We-people seem to know so much about has found its way into my soul. I am a changed person as a result. Let me tell you of some of the encounters over these past weeks, almost all of them in regards to someone hearing, feeling, or listening to me (us) regarding our loss:

  • The person at the counter at Starbucks, which is Deb’s most preferred brief hangout when she seeks her caffeine addiction. Deb happened to mention that she was “coping” when the barista simply asked, “How are you?” This led to this woman coming around the counter, hugging Deb and crying with but what has become the most treasured words, “Oh, I am so sorry.” Just sorry. Nothing more.
  • Many more of these encounters. Like the time, now about 3 weeks ago in my Madison office, after my first day back at work. It was the end of the day and I just locked my door and was walking towards the stairs when a pleasant older woman sitting in the waiting room brimmed a most pleasant smile and wished me a good night. I walked hallway down the stairs and then found I was compelled to return to the third floor. I did so, and said to the woman that I particularly appreciated her smile and greeting because the recent days had been hard as my daughter had died. She immediately got out of her chair, and asked if she could hug me. “Certainly,” I said.
  • The first day back at church, actually on the Sunday after Krissie had died when I was supposed to preach. The person who filled in for me that day mentioned that he was a bit surprised to see me there and mentioned my loss. Immediately, several people (all men, I believe), gathered around me as I found myself in tears.
  • Deb and I traveled “west” not knowing where we might go beyond “west” but we knew that we wanted to get to the source of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota. We did what all people do in this sacred place: walked across the Mississippi River. We went back to the car after an hour or so at these waters, but were somehow compelled to return once more to this spot where the great river begins. Deb asked a young lady if she would be so kind to take our picture, and then noted that Krissie had died and we were scattering some of Krissie’s ashes at the source of the Mississippi. She did what so many people of her nature do at such times: her hand went immediately to her chest, she begin crying, and then hugged us. After the pictures she took of us scattering, crying, and the like, she said it had “been a great honor” to be of service.
  • Another such chance encounter happened closer to our cabin “up north” as we say in Wisconsin. We were on a trek to a falls that Krissie and her kids had taken with us a couple of times. Deb again happened to encounter a woman who asked how we were only to hear of our loss. Without missing a second, she turned to her friend and said, “Ashley, come over here, we’re going to pray.” Then she proceeded to hug us, together with her friend Ashley, and pray for us. Don’t know if I will ever see her again, but she is now is “connected” forever.
  • Many more such encounters with “strangers no more” while their names are not in my vocabulary.
  • Many moments of sharing with Krissie’s friends, particularly at the celebration of life in Bloomington where she lives.
  • I think I have received no less than 100 unsolicited hugs over these past weeks, maybe another 100 emails and more cards and letters. Each of them has been meaningful and helpful.
  • Of course, Deb and I have been “connected” all the more with each of us taking turns crying and holding one another.
  • Among other things remarkable is the fact that I have hugged my sun-in-law, Lamont, perhaps 50 times over these weeks, about 49 times more than I have ever hugged him.

Sharing Grief

It has been enlightening to have had these many experiences of connection, most with strangers, some with friends, and of course some with family. I am a changed person. Yet grieving, yet recovering. I am indebted to these many people, none of them true strangers, for their kindness. The experience has taught me, as I seem to continually be taught by many experiences in life, that there is value in shared grief. I say so to people, like a friend this very morning as we were having a cup of coffee together and heard from him how he “couldn’t imagine how it would be to lose a child” as his eyes welled up. I told him, as I told everyone who shared my grief, that it was helpful to be loved by his sharing this grief with me. I’m not sure that many people truly understand how grief is meant to be shared and how profitable it is to the grieved as well as consoler. It seems that people who are able and willing to this simple task of love have a good sense of who they are and hence can care, if for a moment, more about me than they do about themselves. I look to be more gracious in such things.

Just one brief note regarding the sharing of grief: some people are unable to actually share grief with others. This is because they have not finished their own grief. So when someone with unfinished grief encounters someone grieving, there is a mixture of feelings including a desire to avoid grief altogether and a kind of jealousy that the other person is grieving if place of the person being asked to share the grief. There is no shame in this inability to share grief, but it is impossible for such a person to genuinely love someone else in the other person’s grief when their grief is yet so unresolved.

I Walk A Little Slower Now

I walk a little slower now

My gate not up to speed

I step and step, but then I bow

My back like bread to knead

 

I stumble on a step or two

But find I cannot bear

This burden but for just a few

Seconds as I stare

 

I stare, I stare, I stare once more

As if I could but see

My daughter on another shore

Somewhere ahead of me.

 

I stare, I look, I carefully inspect

That shore I think I see

I look, I think, I feel and yet respect

For what must certainly be

 

I stare, I look, I think, I feel

My hope for this last claim.

But it’s enough for me to steal

A glance from God’s domain

Ron Johnson

8/31/19