Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why Compassion?

 In which we consider whether we are alone in the universe, and how we might go about curing a cosmic cancer.

Rikki Contemplates Compassion
 Several times I've been asked: Why compassion? Why is the subtitle of  your blog: Cultivating Compassion:  Seeking Wisdom in the Company of Cats?  I had to ponder that a while. The connections made by the artistic subconscious don't always crack open easily to the probing light of analysis. Still, I thought I would give it a shot, analysis. After all, why compassion? It's a fair question.

Com-passion. With passion. With feeling. Feeling with. Empathy. But then, why empathy? Why would we want to feel with someone? Feel their joy maybe, yay for us. A free hit of easy ecstasy. But their pain? Why would we want to feel someone's pain?

There is so much sorrow in the world, and yet so much wealth. It recalls the tale of  Lazarus the Beggar languishing at the gate of  the heedless rich man. You may have heard the story. It was told by a poor Jewish carpenter from first century Palestine. 

There was once a man who was very rich, and also a homeless man, a beggar, named Lazarus. Each day Lazarus lay at the gate to the rich man's house, begging for alms, and there was none in all the world to give him aid. The dogs of the street came and licked his sores. (He had no health insurance, it seems.)

Each day the rich man passed by the beggar, and paid him no heed. He enjoyed his life and his luxury, and Lazarus lived out his life of misery, sorrow, and sickness.

At some very visceral level I believe this to be unjust, out of balance, wrong. For a beggar to lie starving at my doorstep while I, luxuriating in excess, feast within.

Apparently the teller of the tale felt also that the situation, which he must have seen to be so common in his world, to be unjust. In the story, we are told the scales are ultimately adjusted, for  one day the rich man died. Lazarus died too. The rich man wakened up in Hell, and Lazarus awoke in "the bosom of Abraham." Now I don't understand exactly what was meant by "the bosom of Abraham" but it was clearly a better place to be than Hell. 

The story goes on with some theological discussions of the possibility of returning from the afterlife, which need not concern us here. The point is, the experience of the Rich Man and the Beggar was a common one. And the carpenter points out its injustice. Something is awry.

The alternate picture which springs to mind is that of Good King Wenceslaus. King, comfortable, warm, privileged, leaving his castle to traipse through the snow and wind and bitter ice to bring food to a beggar he had seen. He is the exact antithesis to the heedless rich man.

I think that in addition to being unique and beautiful creations, alone in the universe, like snowflakes, infinite diversity, infinite variation on a magnificent theme, we are yet united as one great and grand organism, the outlines of which we can barely begin to glimpse. Is it possible for an electron in an atom, one of the many which make up the cells and then the tissues of the human heart, is it possible for that almost immeasurably small electron to grasp the enormity of love? The splendor of a sunset, the heart splitting beauty of poetry and drama, the magic of music? How is it even imaginable then, that I, a small electron in the great being which is the cosmos, could conceive the thoughts which such a cosmos might think? It is beyond me.

 If, indeed, we are all one, then although we are unique in our individual grandeur, we are also somehow the same. I am you, you are me. Rather, I am I and you are you and we are both together parts of something greater, and thus we are one. How then can you not feel my sorrows?  They are the sorrows of the swirling cosmos of which we are both a part, and so they are your very own sorrows as well. Likewise our joys are shared.

I want to live. Like all beings, I want to live and I want to thrive. And yet, what am I, and what is my life, and what is it for me to thrive? The great commandment of the Greeks: Know Thyself. If I truly knew myself, wouldn't it be to know just this, to know that I am a part of all that is and all that is is a part of me? We are one being, one body.

The body is healthiest, the body thrives, when all parts of it thrive together. A human body isn't at its best if one part is healthy and another fails. Indeed, so intertwined are all the systems, so necessary each to the other, that they cannot thrive apart. Let the lungs fail and see if the heart can beat. Let the kidneys shut down and see how long the brain remains lucid. Each system depends on a host of others, and each in its turn is needed.

When the cells of systems go awry, when a group of cells sets out to do its own thing at the expense of other cells, other systems, the result is cancer. Then nothing thrives.

Indeed, it seems to me that we live in a cancerous world, that we are creatures suffering in a cancerous society. Greed and fear and the lust for power have driven us to seek dominion and luxury at the cost of our fellow creatures.  Some people gobble up resources while others starve, or die because they cannot "afford" health insurance. The gobblers mistakenly believe they are looking after their own interests, but in fact they are not. Is this not Lazarus at the door of the rich man? Is this not a terrible cancer which threatens our very life?

What's the cure? What's the cosmic chemo that will set it all aright, if indeed the sickness has not progressed too far? Is it not empathy? Is it not compassion? Is the cure not for us each to embrace the other, to recognize the other as being not only unique and necessary, but also a very part of ourselves?

If we could recognize that, if we could look out the window at the many Lazari who sit, begging, on our many doorsteps, if we could see our own selves in their faces, if we could understand that we are the ones who sit at the gate, covered in sores, how could we not listen to each other, respect each other, cease to scorn one another? How could we not open our hearts and our resources to one another? For we would be opening them to ourselves.

It's not an easy thing to do. Our training and our education and our reptilian primitive brains fight against this recognition. We feel it's us or them. But we are them. We are. The world where we see ourselves as separate, disparate, unrelated, that is maya, that is illusion. Until we feel it in our bones, know it in the depths of our hearts, recognize it with the full force of our glorious reason, know that we, in all our crystaline uniqueness are yet one grand being, one cosmos, then we remain a suffering cancer patient.

Empathy is the cure; compassion is the cure.   Let us turn the forces of our being to the cultivating of compassion.
"Imagine all the people
living life in peace;
You may say that I'm a dreamer,
but I'm not the only one.
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one."~~John Lennon
 stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of short stories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjetcs: cats , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com. Thanks for reading!


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