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I\’m Not an Angel and Neither is She

October 29, AD2013 11 Comments

\"Tammy

I will sheepishly admit the first few times I was called an \”angel\” in the course of my work, I probably internally basked in whatever glow was lingering from whatever situation I assisted in, but as I have gotten older (and hopefully wiser) the less I feel comfortable with that term used to describe me and others. Lets look at this closer; it\’s bigger than me not being able to accept a compliment graciously.

Technically, angels are beings of spirit that are not of our species and we don\’t become them ever, in life or death. \”Angel\” is also used in a broader sense as \”God\’s Messenger\” which any of us can be when we bring love and care into a situation where there was previously a void. I think that were all called to bring Divine love into many situations and the \”Corporal Works of Mercy\” are good places to start. The Church calls us all to serve and open the door to good works and even miracles (when God wills and allows natural law to be suspended) but the Church tells us to be \”saints\” not \”angels\”.

Recently I read a story about a woman who was in a committed relationship with a man in the military who was later injured and became a quadruple amputee. She was described as an \”angel\” in the article. I\’ve also seen articles about people who do other kind and selfless things being called \”angels\” and again, I squirm. Why does this make me so uncomfortable?

I think that we sometimes use terms like \”angel\” or \”hero\” to infer that others have some innately superhuman capacity that we don’t have (and may not want) because if we simply admit that someone (like the woman devoted to her injured beloved) is actually a really virtuous person then we have no excuse to not attempt to cultivate virtue in ourselves.

It might seem harmless to flatter people and consider them exceptional, but few of us get through life without serious challenges that require virtue to successfully navigate. If we consider the virtuous as “those other, better” people then we might give up one our own capacity to rise to the occasion when our strength is needed.

When I worked for a hospice, one of the most amazing parts of the job was watching the evolution of the caregivers who often went from \”I could never ever _____ even if my parent needed me to\” to \”this is really hard but I’m sort of doing it\” finally to \”it was really hard to care for my dying parent but I did it and I am proud of myself.\” Properly caring for the dying takes everybody working together, not just waiting for the “angel” hospice nurse to arrive. I’m friends with many hospice nurses — perinatal, pediatric, adult — and we are generally good and decent people with virtues, but we’re humans with goofiness and foibles like everyone else and we don’t want to be put on pedestals because we will inevitable fall off. We aren’t there to dazzle and rescue but to teach and support.

In my own life, when my mom was in a severe car crash that necessitated a helicopter ride to a Neuro/Trauma ICU and life support when she was unconscious, I was afraid and didn’t know what to do. I felt unprepared and uncertain of what was expected of me, and “angel” of a person sent to fix everything would have seemed ideal at that moment. I sent God a big and sweeping prayer for guidance and strength and suddenly felt a very small and specific answer (so sudden, small and specific was the answer I remember being stunned). “Wash her hair.” Well that was simple enough, so…I did.

Her hair was completely matted after days in a coma and looked as if we might have to shave her bald. Her ear was gone, there was a fresh surgical area, and she couldn’t get out of bed. But with lots of conditioner and patience, I un-matted her hair strand by strand. I didn’t need to be an “angel” or even a nurse at that moment, I just needed to be a daughter (who listened to her Father after asking for help when I was scared).

She later said having her hair washed was her first memory after the crash.

There are people I observe in the world who demonstrate virtues that are weak in me. I recently accepted the hospitality and generosity of a couple who lent me their house for a professional retreat. If I owned that same house, I might let people stay, but not in my room; I would keep part of it just for me and tell myself that I was generous in sharing the rest. The night I stayed there, they were elsewhere and I ended up in their room (where they routinely allow others to stay). I finally mustered the courage to admit to myself that I was receiving something that I would not have been generous enough to offer another person. It would have been much more comfortable (and cowardly and evasive) to just tell myself that my host was an “angel”. It was much harder to admit that I was given a gift by a regular person who consistently cultivated in herself the virtue of generosity. Gulp.

My challenge to you (and for myself) is to be willing to see the virtue in others as an example and encouragement for what people can accomplish when we work at it. My faith and experience have taught me that this is best accomplished when we are humble in asking God for guidance but also committed and brave enough to take tentative uncomfortable steps in faith to the unknown and uncomfortable. The people we want to coin “angels” did that already. Don’t minimize their sacrifice and example by plopping a halo on them and moving on. Learn from them so we can become saints together.

Filed in: Medicine, Social

About the Author:

Tammy Ruiz has been a Nurse for 29 years and spent most of her career in Neonatal Intensive Care. For 10 years, she has been a Perinatal Bereavement Coordinator - caring for women and families suffering miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death and SIDS. Part of her work involves assisting parents in preparing for births when the baby has received the diagnosis of a life limiting condition (often called "Perinatal Hospice"). In addition to her Nursing education, she studied (but did not become certified in) Clinical Pastoral Education at a Catholic Hospital in the midwest. She has been on EWTN and speaks regularly to Physicians & Nurses on the topic of perinatal loss care. Her work has been translated into Polish, Spanish, Czech, French, Italian & Japanese. Her career was both fragmented and enhanced by having 14 different jobs because of moves for her husband who was an active duty Officer in the USMC. A convert to the Catholic Church, she was widowed after 26 years of marriage. She has 3 quasi-adult children and one super-cute grandchild.

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  • NurseTammy

    Its interesting to re-read a post a few days later…ideas that seem crystal clear in your head when you write them later reveal themselves to sometimes be a little fuzzier than you might like.

    Just to make sure no one mistakes me for being disrespectful…when I picked the title, I meant that Im not an angel and neither is any other random gal. I hope no one mistook that for the military wife I spoke of…she surely is a woman if great virtue !!

    Also please know that if a family I care for uses the term “angel”, I dont go into hardcore teaching mode telling them that they are misguided…I try to accept their kindness in the spirit it was intended but I work hard to let them know that Im just a gal…one who is honored to care for them but no claims on superiority ! I understand that people are often being very kind when they use this word…but like normal I like to look at words we say mindlessly and try to make their use more mindful.

    • Jordan

      Honestly, I don’t know why people have to make a big deal of such compliments. I tend to think those that use them understand both meanings of the word better than you seem to suggest in this article. I don’t see it at all as a way of shrugging off our own responsibility to grow in virtue.

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  • Allison Grace

    I’ve read things by you before and you have always understand my comments (I’m the lady with 2 out of 7 children with cystic fibrosis). Now I see that your husband (God rest his soul) was a Marine; mine was in for 8 years AND you’re a convert, as we are. Thank you, as always, for writing. Your friend, Allison

    • NurseTammy

      “Once a Marine always a Marine” I was confirmed in a Church outside Camp Pendleton CA (pregnant with baby I carried during a long deployment) my birth coaches were fellow Marine wives. Were tough cookies we are.

      He always told me if he died, I was to act just like Blythe Danner in “The Great Santini”. Isn’t that such a Marine thing to say? I had a captive audience at his Mass so I chose John 6 for the readings..go big or go home.

      The ranking officer at his funeral asked me what he could do for me and even though I knew he meant in the context of the funeral, I said “don’t gripe about the body armor…it wasn’t perfect right out of the gate but someone had to develop it before it could be perfected and improved…you don’t realize that there was a time it didn’t exist”.

      God has taken very good care of me during this whole time…the mom in the “fruitful story” column was also a Marine wife and she was the first person on my porch that day. 2 Marine dads “whose babies I cared for when they died” were Pall Bearers.

      We don’t get to pick our crosses and other peoples crosses sometimes seem very heavy to us …I imagine having 2 kids with CF would be a huge challenge. I hope you are very blessed in all your circumstances and can feel God nurturing you.

  • Yvonne Stoops

    Thank you for a fascinating blog entry, Tammy. This is exactly where I am working in my spirituality – giving from where I am least comfortable…. Thank you. I am sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. May he rest in peace. You may be interested in going on a Beginning Experience weekend. http://www.beginningexperience.org

    • NurseTammy

      That apostolate looks like a great thing…thanks for sharing it here. Most days I do pretty well…today I didnt cry when I got junkmail from JosABank wanting to sell him suits. Like most people my grief comes in weird, unpredictable waves …sometimes even in my dreams.

  • jamey brown

    Beautiful, just beautiful. I think that’s why we should study the saints. Our culture tends to study the criminals and madmen—the ugly. But in the beautiful stories of the saints we discover, as you point out, that they are not angels or another species but people like us—flawed, lazy, and unqualified. They, however, take the little steps—“the little way” St. Therese of Lisieux called it. She washed dishes as a service to the Lord, and to quote writer G.K. Chesterton (whose cause for sainthood is now being reviewed), “I say…grace before dipping the pen in the ink.”

    • NurseTammy

      Yes… and I totally understand the “flawed, lazy & unqualified” thing…I border on “qualified” but lazy and flawed remain constant challenges. Its like Mother Teresa said “No great things, small things with great love”.

  • anna lisa

    Tammy, thank you. I’ve appreciated many of the little things you’ve written in the past too. What you wrote here reminded me of how Pope Francis makes me look at life and my responsibilities. You may not be an angel, but you have a vocation that I am in awe of. Thank you for giving us an intimate look at your soul, and what you do. God bless you and your family.