Barefoot Zen?

Barefoot Zen?
Namaste, Y'all...

Monday, July 6, 2015

#WithCompassion: A Small, Good Thing

On the occasion of his 80th birthday, The Dalai Lama asked those who wished to honor him to simply use social media with the hashtag #withcompassion to post photos, videos, or quotes that illustrate people treating one another with kindness.

It's a humble and simple gift, befitting of the man; certainly, one done more to uplift our own faith in humanity than for his sake.  As the joke goes, "After all, what do you get the man who has nothing?"

In an age when cynicism is our default setting, and stories of hope are dismantled by the media as quickly as they seem to happen, finding such generous acts may seem illusory.  Yet, they exist.  They're happening a half-mile from your street and half a world away.

In Germany last month, the country agreed to turn 60 former military bases into nature preserves.

COMACO is helping turn poachers into farmers, with Zambian farmers being given the sustainable farming tools they need to yield enough food to keep them from relying on poaching to make ends meet.

Neighbors in Rochester, New York donated 400 bicycles to a Conkey Cruisers after dozens were stolen from the organization, which gives bikes away to promote exercise amongst lower income families.

In my community alone, I've witnessed over $75,000 raised to help my friend Greg as he recovers from being run down on his bicycle by a motorist last year.
  Greg Germani - Give for Greg! by Beth Anne Harrill - GoFundMe

My friend Frank Barham was on a mission to raise money to fund wheelchairs for those who couldn't afford it, traveling from Atlanta to Savannah in his wheelchair.  Tragically, he didn't get there, but donations poured in to help make his dream a reality:  Frank Barham’s final act | A&E Feature | Creative Loafing Atlanta

When a colleague lost his home, wife, and daughter in a fire, and had medical bills for his badly burned son, not only did contributions pour in on a GoFundMe page, but friends created a 5k race to help raise funds and bring the community together.  Jack’s Rabbit Run benefit in Avondale Estates « The Decatur Minute

And I'll continue to draw inspiration from the women & men who made up the family known as Girl Fight Club, rallying around the courageous Jessica Lucas for over a decade during her battle with cancer.

Of course, not every story of compassion is borne out of tragic circumstances.  It sounds trite, but it's a smile at a cashier who is having a particularly rough time of it, checking in on a neighbor recovering from surgery, or reaching out to a friend who needs encouragement, or simply a reminder that they're appreciated.

And yet, some days, it's the hardest damn thing in the world.  Not because we lack compassion, but because we get caught up, distracted by our own circumstances, or even a little fearful of what might happen if we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable, even for a moment.

I know I live far too much of my life with my guard up.  I declared 2015 as my year of becoming more of a "Yes Man", accepting more opportunities to fear less and be more.  I can't say I'm batting .1000, or even .500, but at least 'yes' is starting to pop up in my vocabulary now and then.  It's a start.  A late start, but a start.

My two favorite stories of compassion come from literature.  Both involve food (two pieces of candy, a birthday cake and warm rolls) and the people who provide them (a waitress, a baker).  One is from one of the greatest novels of contemporary American fiction, the other from the most masterful short story writer of the 20th century.  I return to both of these stories whenever I need a reminder that kindness is always within arm's reach.

What's It To You? 

This first story comes from - with apologies to Mark Twain - the novel I most associate with American literature.  The Grapes of Wrath helped me define my spiritual and political beliefs in one simple speech (Tom Joad's goodbye to Ma, Chapter 28).   Yet, for all of the moral gravity that the Joad family brings to their meager table, it's a Route 66 cafe in Chapter 15 that brings me to tears.   While Steinbeck's words cannot be improved upon here, Kris Kristofferson did a masterful job of bringing the scene to life in song.  Here are the lyrics to "Here Comes That Rainbow Again":

The scene was a small roadside cafe
The waitress was sweepin' the floor
Two truck drivers drinkin' their coffee
And two okie kids by the door

How much are them candies, they asked her
How much have you got, she replied
We've only a penny between us
Them's two for a penny, she lied

And the daylight grew heavy with thunder
And the smell of the rain on the wind
Ain't it just like a human
Here comes that rainbow again

One truck driver called to the waitress
After the kids went outside
Them candies ain't two for a penny
So what's it to you, she replied

In silence they finished their coffee
Got up and nodded goodbye
She called, hey, you left too much money
So what's it to you, they replied

And the daylight grew heavy with thunder
And the smell of the rain on the wind
Ain't it just like a human
Here comes that rainbow again

▶ Kris Kristofferson - Here comes that rainbow again (1982) - YouTube

As if the waitress giving over to her better angels wasn't enough, the truck drivers leaving her a tip that outsized her own gift always makes me tremble.

Years later, in a style of writing as deliberate and direct as Steinbeck's, Raymond Carver offered the redemptive tale of a young boy who is struck by a car on the eve of his birthday.  Earlier that day, his parents ordered a birthday cake for him from a rather brusque, awkward baker.  Unaware of the tragedy, the baker begins to call the parents in the days that follow and taunt them for not picking up the cake, for treating his hard work as if it didn't matter.  When the boy dies after a short time in a coma, the parents go to the baker's place of business before the sun has risen. They insist on being let in, though he has not yet opened the bakery.  They tell him - in grieving, harsh language - what has happened, and he sinks into shame.

While this may not seem like compassion, the next act - for me and many readers - exhibits the most beautiful thing about compassion: its capacity to redeem.  The notion that anyone has the opportunity to turn away from their baser instincts, their own pain and self-absorbed story lines, and extend a small, good thing.

Here are the final paragraphs of Carver's story:

A Small, Good Thing (final page) 

"Let me say how sorry I am," the baker said, putting his elbows on the table. "God alone knows how sorry. Listen to me. I'm just a baker. I don't claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I've forgotten, I don't know for sure. But I'm not any longer, if I ever was. Now I'm just a baker. That don't excuse my doing what I did, I know. But I'm deeply sorry. I'm sorry for your son, and sorry for my part in this," the baker said. He spread his hands out on the table and turned them over to reveal his palms. "I don't have any children myself, so I can only imagine what you must be feeling. All I can say to you now is that I'm sorry. Forgive me, if you can," the baker said. "I'm not an evil man, I don't think. Not evil, like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem. Please," the man said, "let me ask you if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me?"

It was warm inside the bakery. Howard stood up from the table and took off his coat. He helped Ann from her coat. The baker looked at them for a minute and then nodded and got up from the table. He went to the oven and turned off some switches. He found cups and poured coffee from an electric coffee-maker. He put a carton of cream on the table, and a bowl of sugar.

"You probably need to eat something," the baker said. "I hope you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this," he said.

He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. "It's good to eat something," he said, watching them. "There's more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There's all the rolls in the world in here."

They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he'd worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn't a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.

"Smell this," the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. "It's a heavy bread, but rich." They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.


Despite their origins, these characters - the waitress, the truckers, the baker, the grieving parents - are no more fiction than you or I.  They're everyone we encounter, each exchange along our journey.  They are our chance to act #WithCompassion.  And we are theirs.

His Holiness refers to this phenomenon as Interdependence.

We are all connected, a fragile tapestry of connective tissue, capable of crushing blows and axis-tilting kindnesses.

Everything matters.

And that's why compassion will always be the right choice.

May I become at all times, both now and forever,
A protector for those without protection,
A guide for those who have lost their way,
A ship for those with oceans to cross,
A bridge for those with rivers to cross,
A sanctuary for those in danger,
A lamp for those without light,
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter,
And a servant to all in need.
Composed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV