You’ve probably heard the expression, dog eats dog world. A phrase on a popular t-shirt in Michigan was Detroit, where the weak are killed and eaten. That’s not my perception of humans or a world I embrace. So how do we counter the dog eats dog world?
Scientists say that empathy and compassion are built-in biological responses to suffering. Could be. What feels truer and doesn’t require neuroimaging is that compassion towards ourselves and others makes the world a better place. While I can’t provide a link to a website that backs up my claim, you already know this fact. It’s a gut truth. Your brain can play tricks on you; your heart can blind you. But your gut can be trusted.
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. How many times have I experienced frustration or mentally judged a person after they complained about something I considered trivial? Sonya and Maja’s story was an instance when I failed big-time.
Sonya, the mother of a teenage girl who lived in an apartment below me in Hamtramck, Michigan interrupted my workout in the middle of the day, asking me to turn my music way down. “Ok,” I said, none too happy. It might do them good to get out of the apartment and get some fresh air. My judging brain was on a roll, and how about opening the curtains, for goodness sake. I shut off the radio and let my frustration hang around for weeks. Days before Christmas, Sonya brought me a platter of cookies. Still holding on to self-righteous anger at her intrusion on my workout routine, the best I could manage was, “Oh, thank you. That was nice of you.” My mother’s reprimanding voice rang in my ears. To silence the ringing, on the afternoon of December 24th, I took a Christmas card and a box of chocolate downstairs.
“Edith, please come in,” Sonya whispered as she motioned for me to follow her through the living room where 19-year-old Maja was sleeping on the couch.” Too much partying, I surmised.
After she closed the door, not sure what we would talk about, unanticipated words came out of my mouth, “Is Maja ok?”
Sonya looked at me as if deciding whether to respond honestly or brush over it. But Sonya, a Polish immigrant and rooted in her Catholic faith, spoke the words that had kept her awake at night and the curtains closed day and night. “Maja is dying. I’m so sorry to have to ask you to turn down your music. It’s just that she sleeps not so good at night. She sleeps good when it’s daytime, and it was waking her up.”
Sonya kept talking. It wasn’t her accent that prevented me from understanding what she was saying. No, not that. I was too busy wishing and wanting that Sonya would slap, kick, and scream at me. It would be less painful than facing myself. Tiptoeing back through the living room, Maja woke up and smiled at me. That’s when I saw the wheelchair at the end of the sofa and a bucket sitting on a towel by her head. January 19th, an ambulance took her away, never to return. She was nineteen years old.
When I read the words of the Dalai Lama, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive,” it was Maja’s face that appeared.
Expressing empathy and compassion towards others affects our thoughts and guides our moral compass to true north. This morning stopping to talk to a woman likely in her early nineties at the park, I stopped and petted her hotdog dog. I may be the only person she talked to that day. I don’t know that, but after I commented that the gray clouds were restraining themselves from spilling rain over us, she said, “Isn’t that nice. Some days I don’t want to go out or see anyone, but I must.” I managed to make her laugh and exchange a few more pleasantries, and when she walked off, her body seemed more erect. Don’t know the truth of that either; perhaps it was I who felt better. Whenever I manage to get out of my own story long enough to truly see another human being and listen, I never regret it. Quite the contrary. My sister, Jórunn, in Iceland, said to me on the phone the other day regarding another sister who has passed, “I will go to the grave knowing I did well by her.”
How do we cultivate compassion in our everyday life? We may have different answers, but one we would agree on is to move beyond the “It’s all about me” mentality. Instead of thinking about me me me, shift to a perspective that includes others, and eventually make the “others” big enough to include all sentient beings. But I must not get ahead of myself. Starting with the cashier at the grocery store will do.
A couple of other exercises to firm up our compassion quotient are to up the kindness and down the judging. The Dalai Lama says, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” Love that! Furthermore, because we live in a distracted world, we must remember to practice presence. Instead of multi-tasking, give people our full attention.
Reading and learning can also boost compassion. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout shares with her father about her bad first day at school. In his great wisdom, and why many women want to be with a Finch type of a guy, he tells her, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” This nugget of wisdom was to empower her empathy, so one day it might turn into compassion for others.
Empathy and compassion are related. Thupten Jinpa, a Tibetan scholar, defines it this way: Compassion is a mental state endowed with a sense of concern for the suffering of others and aspiration to see that suffering relieved.”
Compassion is a challenge to those who see themselves above others. They see other people as interferences that need to be controlled and punished. Another observation, one that counters dog eats dog world, is that there appears to be an emergence world-wide compassion. Individuals, groups, and societies that perceive people as good and nurture this quality. Blessedly, many have enough awareness to know that living in a state of compassion makes the world a better place. We just have to remember it.