There is a short story by Tolstoy: The god of death sent his angel to earth as an emissary to bring back the soul of a woman who had just died. The angel found himself in a dilemma because the woman had given birth to triplets. All three were girls: one was still sucking milk from the dead mother, another was crying and the third was so exhausted that it had fallen asleep. Such was the state – three little babies, the mother lying dead and no one to look after them, since the father was already dead and there was no one else in the family.
The angel returned without the woman’s soul and told the god of death: “Forgive me, I did not bring back the woman’s soul. You can’t be aware of what I have just witnessed: there are three little babies that this woman has given birth to, one still suckling at her breast. There is no one to care for them. Can’t you allow a little time to the mother so that the girls are big enough to look after themselves?”
“So you have become very clever and wise, it seems,” said the god of death, “perhaps wiser than he who wills both death and life to all mortal beings. You have committed the first sin for which you shall be punished. You will have to return to earth and, until such time as you laugh three times at your own foolishness, you shall not return.”
Understand this: laugh three times at your foolishness. The ego always laughs at the nonsense of others. When you can laugh at you own absurdity, the ego breaks. The angel readily agreed to undergo the punishment. He was quite certain he was right under the circumstances, and wondered how he would find an opportunity to laugh at himself. He was ejected from heaven.
It was almost winter. A cobbler, who was on his way to buy warm clothes for his children, came upon a poor man, bare to the bones and trembling in the cold. It was none other than our friend the angel. The cobbler felt sorry for him. Instead of buying the children’s clothes with his hard-earned money, he went and bought clothes and a blanket for the naked man. When he also came to know that he had nothing to eat and nowhere to go, he offered him the shelter of his own house. However, he warned him that his wife was bound to get angry but he should not be upset, everything would be all right later on.
The cobbler arrived home with the angel. Neither the cobbler nor the wife had any idea who he really was. As soon as they entered the door the wife fired off a volley of abuse at her husband for what he had done.
The angel laughed for the first time.
The cobbler asked him why he laughed. “When I have laughed again I shall tell you,” he answered, knowing that the cobbler’s wife was unaware that the very presence of an angel who was her unwanted guest would confer a thousand benefits.
But how far can the human mind see? For the wife it was a loss of warm clothing for the kids. She can only see the loss, but not what had been found – and free of cost, at that. So he laughed, because she didn’t know what was happening around her.
Within seven days he learned the shoemaker’s trade, and within a few months the cobbler’s fame had spread far and wide. Even kings and noblemen ordered their shoes here, and money began to flow in an endless stream.