While I was channeling The Liar, (the previous post), a different fellow came into my head as clear and powerful a picture. (Most often, stories come to me in words or as feelings).
He is an adult man, a poor shepherd in ragged clothes, tending his flock. He sits on a rock, with his rifle close at hand. The terrain is bleak and mountainous. I know we are in the foothills of the Hindu Kush… Afghanistan or Pakistan perhaps.]
“I grew up with it,” he said, showing me his gun. “It was an extension of myself. It never left my side. I learned to shoot as a child and so I was an excellent marksman. When I was out with my herd, I was always scanning the horizon and the skies for predators – wolves, jackals. Even a hawk could take away a small lamb.”
“I also watched the narrow paths leading into our valley, keeping my rifle trained on anyone I didn’t recognize until it was known whether they were friend or enemy. In this way, I, like everyone else, helped guard the safety of our village.”
All well and good, I thought “aloud” to him, but this is not really a story. It’s just an image, and I might just be remembering that image from a photograph. I need more.
He then “showed” me his small house – a typical low mud and brick hut. He told me he had four children, two boys and two girls. The girls were married and living with their husbands’ families.
Sorry, but this is still not particularly interesting. Yet he was coming to me so strongly, I felt he must have more to say.
Don’t you have a story, I asked. A lesson?
And then he started to wax philosophical…
Living in such a small, isolated village, it is impossible to comprehend the life of a person who works in an office in a big city in another country. And the person who lives and works in a big modern city cannot fully imagine the life of a person who lives in a small village.
It is difficult enough to understand the feelings and the suffering and the pain and even the joy of your own neighbor. Sometimes, not even your own family member. Each human being is at the center of his or her own reality. The reality of others is completely abstract. You might as well be on completely different planets.
When the feelings and hopes and dreams and pain of others are abstract, and when their needs and desires conflict with your own, it becomes easy to vilify and hate.
To push aside your own limitations in order to see beyond the limitations of others is the path to compassion. But this takes a tremendous amount of work and energy, more than most humans are willing or able to expend.
It takes far less energy to hate.
Humans like to believe they are compassionate but they make so many exceptions, that they are not compassionate at all. There are always others — a group or a class or an ethnicity or a nation — for whom they make exceptions. “Yes,” they say, “compassion is good BUT those people….” are this way or do that. They are somehow unworthy of compassion.
And how many humans can feel compassion for their enemy, especially if they are trying to kill them? But without compassion enemies are always plentiful.
People claim to want peace in the world as if it is the responsibility of nations or governments. But peace begins with compassion within ourselves. Each time we vilify others, even a neighbor or an old friend or a family member – even if we feel justified because they have done us grievous harm — we move the world one step further from peace.
Addendum: Well, I have to admit, by these standards, I’m not very compassionate at all! Guess I have something to work on!
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