I watch very little television, but occasionally I take a look at the news. Of course we are always presented with yet another of the endless updates on wars and uprisings and skirmishes around the world that make up such a large part of today’s newscasts; and as I watched, I wondered (as I often do) what it must be like to grow up believing that another human, or group of humans, is “the enemy.”
I’ve been upset with people, or angry, or hurt, or whatever, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually hated anyone. I guess I’ve been lucky; I’ve never been taught – or brutalized – into it.
But how would I feel if my family and friends had been systematically slaughtered the way Jewish families were during the holocaust, or the Tutsis in Rwanda, or….you name it; the list of our inhumanities to our fellow humans just goes on and on, throughout history.
What if I had been raped and beaten within an inch of my life – or worse yet, what if one of my daughters had been? What if I had to kill someone to save the life of my husband or a friend – or my own life, for that matter? What kinds of moral choices would I make in those sorts of situations? These acts are committed by human beings much like me, against other human beings much like me.
One day my daughter and I were walking down a street in Toronto, enjoying a visit together and doing some window-shopping. As I glanced down the street that bright spring morning, I noticed a tall man wearing a long, black overcoat over black jeans and t-shirt, striding purposefully down the sidewalk toward us.
He could have been just someone in a hurry, but there was….something….about him that touched a warning note in me – and in my daughter too, apparently. Without a word to each other, we both immediately turned aside and walked into the street and around parked cars to avoid crossing this man’s path.
I looked back after he had passed by and saw him hesitate in front of a flower shop. A moment later, he rudely pushed aside a man coming out of the shop and headed inside. My daughter heard on the news shortly after that incident that the man had badly beaten a woman in the shop and then run away. He was later apprehended by police on a city bus where, after threatening other passengers, he shot himself.
If the woman he beat up had been my daughter, or if I had been in the shop at the time and seen him beating that woman, how would I have reacted? Would I have been able to see the illness and not just the violence, to feel compassion for this man? So many situations could happen to any one of us, at any time. Would I be so glib then about saying I’ve never hated? I simply don’t know. I’m actually grateful I’ve never had to find out.
And then there are those amazing people who shine a small light out into the world. Many of them.
Folks like Dr. Martin Luther King, who told us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Or H.H. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, one of my personal heroes, who has spent his life speaking about compassion, peace, and love – and exemplifying those very attributes.
I just bought a wonderful little book (and I do mean little; it’s 3″ x 4.5″, smaller than a deck of cards) called The Pocket Dalai Lama. I bought it on the spur of the moment when I was looking for another book. It cost almost nothing, and it’s turned out to be a small gem. It’s a collection of short paragraphs, brief excerpts from some of his speeches and letters. The Dalai Lama’s overall message doesn’t vary much – love, compassion, peace, spirituality – yet he manages to express these themes in ways that are always fresh and to the point. This little 116-page book has touched me as much as anything I’ve read.
In an address to Yale University in 1991, he had this to say (P. 28):
In Christianity, there is an inspiring teaching about turning the other cheek when struck by an enemy. This same ideal underlies Buddhist philosophy. Through a systematic practice, we can develop a tolerance so powerful that when an enemy strikes, we feel actual appreciation for his actions, for the opportunity for growth he has provided.
We feel at ease, free from anger and hate, and clearly see the compulsions triggering his behavior. We can feel genuine compassion for the sad fate he brings upon himself as a result of his harmful conduct.
“Through a systematic practice….” Of course! That’s what it takes to learn a different response from the usual knee-jerk reaction, to respond with compassion: practice! Practice every day, until it becomes second nature. Practice on the cushion, and then off the cushion as well.
Well, I’m practicing.
It’s not easy. Most often, I completely lose it as I’m caught up in some inconsequential incident that jumps out of my daily routine. But I’m learning – in tiny baby steps.
In spite of those moments, here’s what gives me hope: every once in a while, I’ve actually been able to yank myself out of the usual thoughtless reaction and back into my heart; pause; think twice; practice tolerance; actually “turn the other cheek.” These are just small moments in an ordinary day, I know. But that’s how we humans learn, isn’t it. We practice taking small steps, over and over.
Where this will lead me, I have no idea. But I’ll keep practicing.
Because the Dalai Lama said. And I believe him.