In the course of my day, I am in the constant company of a broad cross-section of humanity. I work with people in an intense and emotional field. Actually, I have three related jobs that are all quite different. What ties them together is that they are all based in compassion and a desire to help make the world a kinder, gentler place.
We live in a world rife with cruelty and suffering. People who could do the right thing make a conscious choice to embrace the darkest and most heinous behavior. Nature may wreak havoc in our world, but more often than not, the worst moments are man-made.
My work surrounds me with two distinct populations: People who have suffered beyond comprehension, and people who wish to facilitate the healing process. The paradox of human behavior is woven throughout my day, leaving me at once discouraged and encouraged. No sooner do I find myself filled with despair and mourning the lack of human decency when I witness the true depths of human caring.
This morning I was asked to explain, in simple English, what was happening in California with the fires. I told the story, recited the numbers, and explained the conditions that had made the fires so incredibly volatile. Twenty-one people looked at me. Twenty-one people who had been on the receiving end of those man-made horrors. Twenty-one people who had lost everything, absolutely everything, yet survived and were starting over a continent or two away. One voice spoke for all of the concerned faces. “Are the people in California in a safe place?”
“Yes,” I said, “they’re in shelters or with family. They’re safe.” There was a moment of silence, just a breath in duration, and the next question was almost a whisper. “How can we help? What can we do? Do they need anything?”
The room was so still, I felt as if the Earth had stopped spinning. Equilibrium. Grace. Compassion. What kind of spirit must a person harbor to be battered, broken, and bereft of life’s comforts, and yet upon hearing of another’s misfortune, feel fortunate and in a position to help someone else survive?
People are beautiful sometimes. And then I’m reminded that they aren’t.
Later in the day, I was sitting in the bland, circa-1980s apartment of an ethnic Hazara family from Afghanistan. Surrounded by five siblings and their parents, I gathered bits and pieces of educational and family history. Abdul, the father/husband, explained to me that his body was broken down at just 42 years of age. He told me that the Russians, followed by the Taliban, had devastated the part of Afghanistan where he lived, and the constant stress of war, the lack of heating fuel for his home, the gas from the bombs—all of it—had taken its toll on him and his family. Abdul fled Afghanistan in a split-second, life-or-death decision and wasn’t able to have any contact with his family for the next nine years.
Abdul’s oldest daughter, a gorgeous 18-year old with a sculpted face and slanted, almond-shaped eyes, had developed a seizure disorder as a result of the chemical warfare. She also had obvious symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares that made her scream in the middle of the night. She was unable to attend school, and she now believes herself to be too damaged to participate in life’s opportunities. Abdul has the nightmares, too, and is prone to repeating his trauma stories again and again with rushed speech and short breaths, as if talking faster will keep him one step ahead of being caught by the bad memories. Abdul understands the disorienting break in the most basic rules of trust. He has been tortured.
Driving home, I tried to reconcile the conundrum that we humans are. We are capable of almost unimaginable cruelty, and yet we can also dig deep for compassion to try and heal people we’ve never even met. We are beautiful. We are frightening. We are able to choose. I wish more people could see the value of choosing compassion.
Yes, this pondering does make the head spin. I don't think there is any way to reconcile it. It just is.
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