The Compassionate Life

THE OTHER DAY, the teasing at our dinner table went just a bit
too far. Three brothers (and their father) piled on at the fourth’s
expense, and, though the moment passed quickly, it left a little

As all parents know, teachable moments come at odd times. Later
that night I found myself in the wee hours, standing at the top of
the stairs having a tete-a-tete with one of the teasers, who had
just come home. I told him that, though I know him to be a kind
person, he hadn’t acted like one at dinner. He agreed, and then I
took the opportunity to deliver a little life lecture. I told him
that I believe all the suffering and catastrophe surrounding us
offer only one possible survival route: humans evolving to become a
species that thinks and acts from the heart. Free will simply means
we have the consciousness to choose love or hate, moment by moment.
Whether we as a species ultimately manage to make a shift is
immaterial — acting out of compassion is still the best game in
town because, win or lose, we’ll have a better time along the way.
And all that, I concluded, is why it’s important to be loving to
your brother. To my surprise and delight, he thanked me.

Since then, I’ve realized I was talking to myself at least as
much as to him. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the outpouring
of compassion to the victims of the tsunami. It’s such a relief to
feel generous and openhearted, to be taken out of our worries about
war and terrorism and the direction of our country, to be able to
focus on a catastrophe that we don’t feel responsible for.

Why does compassion flows so easily in some circumstances and
not in others equally dire? Marianne Williamson wrote recently,
‘The hard and painful truth is this: For millions of people living
on this planet, every day is a catastrophe. From AIDS victims in
Africa, to citizens of the Sudan caught in the struggle of their
civil war — and, yes, to both soldiers and civilians in Iraq —
life itself has become catastrophic. Where is our concerted
knowing, our collective response, our deep grief for those who
suffer through experiences that are just as catastrophic as the
tsunami yet more convenient to ignore?’

Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian mystic, said that the purpose of
this time in history is for us to learn to feel another’s pain as
if it were our own, to feel it so intensely that we are compelled
to act.

I’ve been ruminating on what blocks the ability to empathize. It
seems to me that the most incapacitating emotion is shame. Regret
and remorse are active. They imply taking responsibility and making
amends for our attitudes and actions. Shame, by contrast, turns in
on itself in a miasma of denial.

We in the United States can feel innocent of the tsunami.
Everywhere else, suffering is all too directly caused by our
government, our corporations, and our habits of consumption. And I,
despite all my knowledge and best intentions, am implicated at
every turn as a U.S. citizen.

How do we collectively begin to recognize and redress what we
have done? According to a recent United Nations report, over 29,000
children die every day from preventable malnutrition and disease.
Closer to home, today’s headlines say that our local emergency food
shelves are empty, while an estimated 30 percent of Americans have
contributed to tsunami relief efforts. How can we develop a
consistently compassionate response when we are so mired in denial
and the shame of our complicity?

Compassion requires the grace of an opening heart. It starts
moment by moment, every interaction an opportunity, until we learn
to soften our hearts to what we most hate and fear.

And that is why it matters that you are kind to your brother —
or sister.

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