Saturday, July 14, 2012

Compassion is a Verb and I saw it

Sorry I’ve been away.  Sometime life interrupts us, but it doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about you. 

I recently listened to a pod cast by a Buddhist about the subject of compassion.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many Buddhists personally.  However, they do have an interesting way of looking at the world that makes sense to me.  And being an anthropologist at heart, I am always interested in such things. So I listened to this pod cast called “Compassion is a Verb” and I thought, oh that’s nice, and went about my day.

Shortly after that, I spent several hours in several airports and on a couple of airplanes where I saw how compassion is a verb, how it is an action, and the message hit truly home.  The speaker on the pod cast quoted another Buddhist, who summarized Buddhism thus~

Everything is connected, everything is impermanent and you are not alone.


Everything is connected – It’s so interesting that just this last week, scientists in Europe, who spent billions of dollars to build a super collider and years playing around with it, essentially proved what many ancient people already knew – everything is connected.  I wonder what else we could have done with that money…I’m not saying research shouldn’t be done.  You just have to wonder if all research is necessary.

Everything is impermanent – I’ve written about this many times, in one form or another, mostly with respect to gardening in the desert.  I lost a tree this year in a freak wind storm.  After years of nurturing this little pine tree, of watching robin babies hatch in its branches and seeing it get taller than me, it blew over.  Just like that.  Done.

You are not alone – This gets at the heart of compassion, which is the ability to empathize with someone else’s suffering and act on it.  And this is what I saw on the plane that day.  There was no emergency, no reason for strangers to come together in a dramatic fashion, just our shared confinement in a small space for several hours.

It was late and I’m sure everyone on the plane was tired.  Face it, air travel is cramped and uncomfortable and boring for those of us who fly economy class.  Adults can usually cope, but it’s hard for children to be still for hours if they aren’t asleep.  As anyone who has children knows, a tired child is apt to cry and that’s just what one little girl on the plane did – she cried.  I never actually saw her because she was several rows behind me, but I could hear her and her agitated mother, yelling louder and louder for the little girl to shut up and stop crying.  (I’ve never understood why anyone thinks a person can just stop crying; if you’ve ever cried, you know it’s hard to stop on a dime.  And if someone is yelling at you, it doesn’t make it any easier.  And if that person is four times bigger than you, forget it, right?)

And this wasn’t just once.  This woman told her child repeatedly to shut up over the course of perhaps ten minutes because the child couldn’t stop.  As a parent of children myself, I felt like I was witness to abuse, like I was being abused myself.  I wanted to whack that woman soundly across the mouth, tell her to grow up.  How could someone be so cruel to a child in front of so many people?  If I could hear it, I’m sure everyone else could too.  The passenger next to me was cringing too.  Couldn’t a stewardess do something? 

I was stuck in a window seat, rows away, unsure of what, if anything I could do, and then it happened – a small woman dressed in army fatigues, got up from her aisle seat, and went back to where the mother was still berating her crying child.  Instead of saying something rude, like I imagined doing myself, the soldier asked “Is something wrong? Can I help?”  We were all tired and cramped, we all felt the same pain as that little girl, but that soldier acted and she let that little girl know she was not alone.  And that is the most amazing thing any of us could ever do.

So often we feel alone even when we’re surrounded by many.  It’s easy to forget we’re all connected.  It’s even easy to forget everything is impermanent, for a while.  But life always reminds you.

And here’s one last thing I saw on a plane that day, albeit a different flight…

I was sitting next to a very bulky biker.  He had the leather vest with all the biker pins, the big handlebar mustache.  It was easy to imagine him riding one of the thirteen Harley-Davidson motorcycles he said he owned.  Right across the aisle from him sat another man with chiseled features, tattoos up and down his toned arms and legs.  The man’s hair was cropped close to his scalp, making him seem even more angular.  The biker, who was very friendly, asked the man across the aisle what branch of the military he served in.  The man replied that he wasn’t in the military.  Not about to be deterred, the biker asked him if he was cop.  The man smiled and said “No, I’m a Methodist minister.”  I laughed out loud.

We think we know so much about people and we don’t.  We think others are so different from us and they’re not.  We think we’re separate, but we’re connected.  It reminded me of the saying “be kind, for everyone is fighting their own battle”.  It could just as well say, “be compassionate, we’re all in this together”.  Peace~