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When we look beyond the veil of outward appearances and circumstances, people aren’t always what they appear to be.
Last week I went shopping for a sofa at a major furniture store. I knew exactly what I was looking for and how much I wanted to spend, so when the salesman started to veer me off course, I became somewhat impatient. I was still cordial, but when he left after our conversation, I got an “off” feeling in my stomach that I get when something is wrong. When I questioned the feeling, I realized that I hadn’t demonstrated my best behavior, and I felt regretful. Immediately I remembered a story which made me view the salesman in a new light:
As told by Snoops “Lesson in Compassion,” a real-life study was conducted for a social psychology class at Princeton University in 1970. Students at a religious institute enrolled in a class on the life of Jesus arrive at their classroom to take the final exam and find a notice informing them that the test will be given in another building on the other side of the campus. As the students rush across campus to the new room, each is accosted by a forlorn beggar who entreats their help. None of the students stops for him, however—they all rush by, anxious to arrive on time for the exam.
The instructor is waiting for the students when they finally reach the classroom. He explains to them that the beggar was an actor, planted by him to test their reactions. Because the students did not demonstrate that they had acquired any compassion while studying the life of Jesus, they all failed the exam.
This experiment made me think about my experience with the salesman. What if he was an angel in disguise—and even if he wasn’t, isn’t every face the face of God?
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. – Hebrews 13:2.
When I was shopping, all I could perceive was a salesman who was needlessly walking me around a large store trying to get me to buy things I didn’t want. Interestingly enough, he did show me a piece of furniture I didn’t even realize I wanted until I saw it. His seemingly annoying behavior took me to exactly what I needed! More confirmations flooded into my head as I remembered one of my favorite stories that reminded me that things aren’t always as they seem.
Baha’u’llah’s mystical work The Seven Valleys tells an enchanting tale of a lover searching for his beloved. In separation from her for many long years, he wasted away in the fire of remoteness. Time consumed him and in his pain he found no rest, peace, nor sleep. The doctors knew no cure since only the sight of his beloved could deliver him.
At last, one night, he could bear the pain no longer and he left his house in despair. Suddenly he heard a guard following him. The lover broke into a run but the man he feared only grew menacingly closer. He then cried from his heart, “Surely this watchman is Izrá’íl, my angel of death, following so fast upon me; or he is a tyrant of men, seeking to harm me.” Then, as the story goes:
He came to a garden wall, and with untold pain he scaled it, for it proved very high; and forgetting his life, he threw himself down to the garden. And there he beheld his beloved with a lamp in her hand, searching for a ring she had lost. When the heart-surrendered lover looked on his ravishing love, he drew a great breath and raised up his hands in prayer, crying: “O God! Give Thou glory to the watchman, and riches and long life. For the watchman was Gabriel, guiding this poor one; or he was Isráfíl, bringing life to this wretched one!”
Indeed, his words were true, for he had found many a secret justice in this seeming tyranny of the watchman, and seen how many a mercy lay hid behind the veil. Out of wrath, the guard had led him who was athirst in love’s desert to the sea of his loved one, and lit up the dark night of absence with the light of reunion. He had driven one who was afar, into the garden of nearness, had guided an ailing soul to the heart’s physician.
Now if the lover could have looked ahead, he would have blessed the watchman at the start, and prayed on his behalf, and he would have seen that tyranny as justice; but since the end was veiled to him, he moaned and made his plaint in the beginning. – Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, pp. 13-15.
Recalling a thoughtful parable, as told by the poet Rumi, I am determined now to see each person with new eyes, because God works in mysterious ways and behind each face hides the face of the Beloved:
This enthralling story made me realize that I must be grateful for whoever comes into my life, because each has been sent as a guide and a gift from God. At the end of the afternoon and after my soul searching, I went to find my salesman’s manager to thank for his help. My salesman turned out to be just the person I needed to encounter that day.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every day a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.