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Heaven and Hell in everyday life

I have heard people say that they can’t relate to heaven and hell. As concepts they are too abstract, too distant. I don’t have that problem. I believe they are real.

Look around and you’ll see them. They are at our fingertips, our doorsteps, at the places we go, and within the people we meet. They also reside within us. We just do not notice them. Perhaps they are too close for us to see them.

Perhaps we are too scared to look.

I recently had to go to the bank late on a Friday afternoon. I expected it would be crowded and was not surprised to find that it, in fact, was. The line looped back on itself three times and filled the queue. After a long wait, I had just one lady remaining in front of me. At that moment another lady in a wheelchair was wheeled up to take the next available cashier. Amazingly, the lady standing in front of me instantly and visibly tensed in anticipation of being deprived of the next service herself. Taking a half-step forward, she stared defiantly at the person in the wheelchair and muttered under her breath, “Oh, no she doesn’t!”

That is hell.

I wondered at the profound depth of her selfishness. How dare the world impose a wait of five more minutes on her! Damn them! It simply could not be tolerated. I am sure the wheelchair-bound woman would relish the joy of standing on her own two feet. Standing on her feet for five minutes would no doubt represent an ultimate joy, a dream fulfilled, and a blessed release from prison. Yet, to the woman in line it was an intolerable imposition, one so offensive that she would assert her entitlement to service over those less fortunate, those to which we might show respect and compassion through a graceful and polite deference. But even such a slight concession was beyond her imagination, beyond the bounds of her conscience, beyond her ego.

Where did compassion go?

It is almost unfathomable that we would live in a world where relinquishing one’s place in line would triumph over such a simple act of compassion. How small is a moment’s inconvenience when compared to a lifetime of disability? Given the choice I am certain that the woman in the wheelchair would prefer to stand in line herself rather than be granted the privilege of a moment’s consideration at the expense of a life full of daily challenges. She probably realized that her condition was not only a source of her own inconvenience but was a source of inconvenience to others as well. How shameful that someone would place upon her an additional guilt for accepting such a simple privilege. What have we become?

There is a Buddhist parable that teaches us how heaven and hell can reside within us. It seems that one day a great samurai went to a Buddhist priest and asked of him, “Tell me of the nature of heaven and hell.” The priest looked at him scornfully and began a barrage of insults saying, “You are nothing but a lowly worm, why would I teach you anything!” Enraged to the point of explosion the samurai drew his sword to kill the priest. Just at that moment the priest said sharply, “That is hell!” Instantly realizing the depth of his mistake and his complete lack of enlightenment the samurai began to cry. At that moment the Buddhist priest said quietly, “That is heaven.”

Compassionate unity creates heaven on earth.

It is said that hell is separation. It is a separation from others, from God, from meaning, and from ourselves.

The Buddhist parable teaches us how separation can express heaven and hell in our own lives. It is a separation that can be so vast that it can embrace the ability to kill. This is the great mystery of genocide. That one human can look upon another, one even of the same flesh, and see nothing. If you think this is a matter for history, look closer at even our own generation. Look at the mass graves in Bosnia, in Rwanda, at the atrocities of extremists in Central Asia and the Middle East. It is this form of separation that defines hell as it flashes within the samurai.

Yet, it is a compassionate unity that humbles the samurai to a tearful repentance. The signature characteristic of the woman in line was her ignorance of her own ego, her intrinsic lack of awareness of others. It is as though she was screaming “me” instead of “we.” The signature characteristic of the samurai was his ability to transcend his self, to observe, to understand his own misplaced ego.

Each story frames our ability to control the expression of heaven and hell in our lives. How self-aware are we? How do we anchor our perspectives? When we make our choices, how understanding are we? At each moment, we have the choice to include or reject, unite or separate, build or destroy. It is up to us.

This story originally appeared in my book, The Quiet Voice of Wisdom (

For more insights see my books and blog at

Or, my YouTube channel, The Coping Expert, at

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

(Image credit is Adobe)

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