I’m being invaded by an armada of 2022 calendars. They unsettle me.
Every year they show up in the mailbox around this time like crickets do in my house. I’m seeing more this year. 2022 calendars arrive in various sizes with bigger and bigger formats. My mailbox is already cluttered with those humongous postcards –– postcards on steroids –– the newer ones’ advertising goods and services which in prior years, were pitched on discreetly sized cards.
Arriving every few days, these large calendars are impossible to ignore. They make me nervous, a reminder that I probably won’t be here in 2022.
Before electronics, I would place appointment times down for the new year in a small pocket calendar. Ironically, the first entrances would be medical appointments. Then I’d jot down family birthdates, special events and various commitments to be kept. Looking back, I see how I held as an unerring certainty –– but always outside of my conscious awareness –– that there’d always be tomorrow. Theoretically, I knew, as much as youth and vitality would permit me, that all I had was the moment I was living. However, that never intruded on my timetable. It was too remote.
Mostly I dealt with plans made day to day, week to week, month to month, but always in the background was the abiding certainty that I would continue this practice in perpetuity. Shakespeare once wrote somewhat dismissively, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps on that petty pace from day to day.” I must say in my present circumstances, petty, or not, I’ll take as many as I can get.
Of the many stories about mortality I’ve heard in my career, one of the top aversions to dying is the feeling that mortality robs us of the time we need to finish what we are doing. The feeling of not being ready to go is a remarkably universal sentiment. It’s like college kids at exam time; panic as the deadline nears and hoping for an extension.
I know that feeling. I’d really like more time. However deceptive, to imagine that time is a renewable resource is comforting. But just what is it I need more time for?
A related question has haunted me as I’ve grown older and more introspective: Why am I here? Why are any of us here?
The same thought always comes to mind. Although it’s gone through several iterations, it’s something like this: I am here for someone else. I am here for others. But who is it, who are they? Will I ever know?
Pondering our lives’ purposes one morning, led Jo and me to considering angel myths since angels are said to be sent by God to help others. Popularly, we call “angels” anyone who extends us kindnesses. I’ve always had trouble thinking of God sending angels to help like Uber dispatches drivers. I can’t imagine God micromanaging like that. With an entire universe to look after, he’s delegated the task to you and me.
I was a boy when I first saw angels. They were in my parish church; one, a statue, the other a painting. The statue, wooden and life-sized, stood in front of the church by the sanctuary. Over her head she held the lectern where the Bible rested and the lessons were read during services. Her sculpted garments fell to the floor like oversized drapes. In the parish house, a classical painting of angels hung, angels on the wing. Portrayed were cherubs, elite angels. They looked fat, like overly fed babies and had wings, wildly curly hair and were buck naked, oddly so, I thought, that they’d be that underdressed in a church. These were definitely not she-angels. What were they doing, I wondered? They appeared to hover over a saint like drones. I guessed they were looking out for him.
But like any myth, angel myths point beyond their romantic legends to some fundamental truth. I suspect it’s something like this.
Our first obligation to one another is to love. This appears again and again in most all the teachings of the world’s religions. Jesus sums it up: “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.”
This commandment is short and simple, but so is the formula E=mc2. “Love one another” is as difficult to live into as E=mc2 is to comprehend. We know this much: both unleash invisible forces that contain astonishing power: the one can obliterate entire landscapes, the other is able to pierce the hardest of hearts.
It makes sense to me that those who earnestly try living out the commandment would be called angels. They could be anyone. I’ll bet everyone knows at least one. I don’t believe these people are just following orders but instead, because the commandment deeply moved them, they’re committed to living it out –– not by showcasing their goodness, but almost surreptitiously, by simply loving and being kind wherever they are. They go about their business, touching the lives of others as they normally would in their capacity as friends, neighbors, colleagues, family, merchants, and citizens doing what they do. And indeed, whatever it is they happen to be doing, anywhere or at any time, it always contains measures of grace. “Helpers” was how Fred Rogers of ‘Mr. Rogers Neighborhood’ once called them.
I believe this is the underlying truth of angel myths. If so, I say we dump the stereotypes –– pluck the wings, nix the wild hair, clothe them (for proprieties sake) and recognize how, in real life, their boots are not treading on top of clouds as they’ve been portrayed, but are planted firmly on the ground somewhere near us in our own neighborhoods.
Both Jo and I, in the last few months, continue to discover people we never suspected had been looking out for us.
I understand better how my fretting over calendars misses the point. Calendars are pieces of paper printed with months, days, and numbers –– abstractions, basically. There is nothing in any calendar that says there’s no time to complete my life’s task. My task, looking out for others, is like E=mc2 –– deceptively simple to read but with profound consequences. I can practice being a helper and bring grace into people’s lives wherever I can. I’ll not only feel satisfied doing what I’m supposed to but I’ll always be on schedule.
Looking at it that way, I have all the time there is.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.