14 Chapters
Medium 9781576757567

3. Empathy: You in Me, Me in You

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

See yourself in others
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?

—The Buddha

IONCE SPENT A DAY SHADOWING THE DALAI LAMA. IT WAS ONE of his early visits to the United States, and I was covering him for the local paper, but that was just my alibi. I wanted to take his measure, to see for myself what this incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, the deity of compassion, was really like when the rubber sandals met the road.

He struck me as bright and curious—an exceptionally nice man—but a living Buddha? Yet as the day wore on, it crept up on me: His caring never seemed to waver. He emanated a steady warmth without gaps, moods, or slipups. I watched him meet with the mayor of Denver, a stogie-chomping old pol whose small talk inched dutifully over the official terrain of tourism and molybdenum mining. The Dalai Lama stood listening, duck-footed, hands folded, eyebrows cocked, his trademark smile hovering somewhere near delight. Hizzoner presented His Holiness with a picture book of the state’s Rocky Mountain wonders, the sort you’d pick up at an airport gift shop. The Dalai Lama accepted happily, sitting down to leaf through it with what appeared to be genuine interest. When he came upon a color plate of a bighorn sheep, he told the mayor warmly, “We have this kind in our mountains, too!”

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12. The Beloved Community

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Grandfather
Look at our brokenness.
We know that we are the ones
Who are the divide
And we are the ones
Who must come back together.

—Ojibway prayer

The end is the creation of the Beloved Community...
It is this love that will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.

—Martin Luther King Jr.

I CAME TO NEW YORK A FEW DAYS AFTER 9/11, INTO A STRICKEN city of the walking wounded. A charnel breeze, burnt and bitter, blew through the ghost town of Tribeca, making the lungs and the heart ache. Like everyone, I couldn’t sleep; I’d snap on CNN at three in the morning, nod off with it still murmuring. Below my window, ad hoc choirs of passersby serenaded firemen at the stationhouse next door, its bricks festooned with Missing posters, homemade floral wreaths, and kids’ crayon drawings of skyscrapers blooming with flame and cherry ladder trucks zooming to the rescue. I watched friends straggle back toward faith or lose it.

U2’s bittersweet ode to love, loss, and bravery, “Beautiful Day,”was on the airwaves. Beneath tragedy’s skin, there were invisible sinews of tenderness. Even my most tough-minded friends seemed surprised at how catastrophe had catalyzed a sense of mutual belonging, had reawakened—on the street, in offices, cabs, and elevators—some instinct to be better, to love more. Despite the news testifying to an ineradicable streak of human brutishness, you could feel what anthropologist Stephen Gould called“the victorious weight of innumerable little kindnesses.” It became impossible to relegate compassion to mere sentiment, to a poignant lump in the throat or a one-off act of charity. It was as basic as air.

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10. Loving the Monster

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

What shall we make of our darkness?

—Blaise Pascal

IT’S A FOUR-HOUR DRIVE FROM ATLANTA TO THE TELFAIR STATE Prison down a lonesome stretch of I-75, which slices through central Georgia like a straight-razor cut. I put the tuner on scan and, just as I pass the Pinetucky Church of God, catch a burst of pure southern gothic, some ballad about a dying preacher who “a-laid his bloodstained Bible right in that hooker’s hand.” In the staticky desert of rural bandwidth, where the choice is either Black Sabbath oldies or the Good Book’s greatest hits, I’ll take a good sermon, where the story of Mary and Joseph at the inn becomes “the Bethlehem Motel Six refused to take their credit card!” I play a mental game, slugging in my own translations for the more overwrought scripture thumping. When the preacher shouts, “Friends, I wouldn’t live a day without Jesus,” I think, without compassion, for what else was he, and amen to that. “Repent!” becomes take a frank and fearless inventory, and I try: The truth is, I’m more than a little nervous: I’m on my way to meet a stone cold killer.

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11. A Little Peace of the Heart

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth;
he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in
sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

—Psalm 46: 8–10

WHEN I WAS IN THE THIRD GRADE, MY YOUNGER SISTER broke my favorite toy. I yelled at her, she screamed back, and then, to my surprise, she launched herself at me in a fury, scratching me hard on the arm. My reaction was blind, unthinking; I raked my own nails down her forearm, making furrows that, to my shock, began to ooze blood. I was punished, but nothing cut so deeply as the guilt I’d felt at her pain.

I’ve wondered from time to time what happened in this primitive, instinctual tit for tat, a variant of any playground fight. Some kid pinches you, and you pinch them back: There, now you know how it feels! The word revenge doesn’t quite cover it; in an odd way, it’s more like enforced empathy, a need to make others feel, firsthand and in rough proportion, the suffering they caused us.

It’s not such a leap from the dynamics of schoolyard rivalry to the logic of clan warfare: Here’s what it felt like when you dishonored my family, terrified my child, killed my brother. Carried to its extreme, it is the twisted reasoning of warfare itself: This is what it is like to have your church destroyed, your crops burned, your city ruined. See how you like it.

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13. All My Relations

Barasch, Marc Ian Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

—Martin Luther King Jr.

Truly, universally, relations stop nowhere.

—Henry James

I RECENTLY SAW A LOCAL NEWS STORY ABOUT A BOY WHO became lost in the Colorado woods in the dead of winter. As hypothermia set in, he saw emerging ghostlike out of the swirling snow two large elk. Feebly, he threw stones at them, shouting until his voice gave way, then lost consciousness. Early the next morning, he awoke to find himself sandwiched between the two great beasts, which had laid their warm bodies next to his through what would have been a fatal, freezing night.

Or so he told the search team when he staggered into a clearing and was rescued. They were skeptical—hallucinations are a side effect of extreme duress—until he led them back to his sleeping spot. There, in the snow, they saw the concavities made by two enormous animals, the imprint of a small boy in between.

Why would the animals bother? Why not just curl up with each other for some languorous elk-frolic through the wintry night? (Three’s a crowd, and besides, in these parts people shoot them.) There are a million stories of our fellow creatures being kind to us for no good reason—from dogs who, with no rescue training and at risk to their own lives, rush into the flames of burning buildings to drag strangers to safety; or dolphins who nose drowning swimmers to the surface, wait for human help to arrive, then take off with an errant tip of a flipper. There are inexplicable ways compassion radiates through the world, some spirit of sympathy drawn toward any distress like white cells to a pathogen. When William Wordsworth spoke of "a motion and a spirit that...rolls through all things,” he was talking about the systole and diastole of some universal heartbeat.

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