My work affords me opportunities to see the worst and best of human behavior. I am continually amazed at the cruelty of human beings and equally amazed by our ability to be compassionate, and loving. Some time ago I had the privilege to know two sisters who were victims of unspeakable acts of violence. I was sitting with the oldest, age five, playing a game. She drew a card that said, “Name 2 things you love.” The young girl looked at me with confusion in her light green eyes. “What is love?” she asked. Not too long afterward I watched her two-year-old sister gently touch the face of a crying child. Then she placed her tiny arms around the other child in an attempt to provide comfort. Where does the capacity for compassion and love come from when you have never known compassion and love? What creates this ability? What makes it grow and thrive in our lives? What snuffs it out?
Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar, and peace activist, says, “Compassion is always born of understanding, and understanding is the result of looking deeply.” I think he is saying when we look deeply within ourselves and at another being, we see our common plight. We know what it is to suffer. We understand that we are not different from one another. Being in touch with this knowing gives us compassion for others. The Little Prince reminds us, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.”
Are we born knowing how to be compassionate? Or is it only through being shown love and compassion that we can give love and compassion? If we can only know what we have been given, then how did that two year old girl give compassion when she had never known it herself? Is it both? We are born with the capacity to be compassionate and it grows when nurtured? And if so how much nurturing does it take? How does a person maintain the capacity for compassion when most of his experiences are painful, and degrading? And what drives compassion out of us?
Do we remove the ability to be compassionate when we teach children that their needs are more important than the needs of another? Or when we teach them that other beings are objects that they can use to meet their own needs? Or is it the small choices that we make every day that erode our compassion for each other? The averted gaze when we see a person who is homeless. The distance our judgments create between us and others we see who are suffering. Judgments like- “He wouldn’t be homeless if he got off his butt and got a job.” “It’s her fault he beats her, she won’t stand up for herself and leave.” “She would be able to feed her kids if she worked harder.” Or is it all of these things and more that steal our compassion for one another? Much like the power of tiny droplets of water that over time erode the surface of a rock.