“The idea that some lives matter less than others is at the root of all that is wrong with the world.” ~ Paul Farmer
I grew up in a mini menagerie. At various times my parents, sisters and I shared our homestead with parakeets, a goat, a horse, chickens (pets named Sam and Henry), tropical fish, rabbits, turtles, mice and cats, always cats. For years, my dad shared his basement workshop with a tarantula that came inside from the cold. He saw no reason to kill a creature that was doing no harm. He even named it.
We treated our animals like members of our family. We were not only taught to handle them gently, but my parents found nothing funny in our temptation to tease them. I remember being scolded for putting a paper bag over a cat’s head so that my sister and I could laugh while he careened backwards trying to escape.
Our parents taught us to love wild creatures too. We delighted in sightings of a couple squirrels who frequented our yard (Ludwig and Ludmilla, according to my dad), rabbits, chipmunks and many, many birds that we fed year round—out of reach of the cats, of course.
So when Cecil the lion met his tragic end, I was heartsick. The pain reached deep into my cells. For the first day after the news broke, I abandoned Facebook, because I couldn’t stand to see his soulful face in so many of my friends’ posts. Over the next few days, I learned the horrifying details of his demise—gradually, in small doses.
By the time I re-entered the world of social media, the predictable memes were showing up, scolding those of us who cared about Cecil’s suffering for supposedly not being as concerned about the plight of humans—as if caring about animals precludes caring about humans.
In fact, my sorrow for Cecil’s tragic end in no way diminishes my revulsion and sadness at the horrific acts of cruelty against humans—the hate-fueled shootings in South Carolina and Louisiana, the daily violence of ISIS, the continued suffering of the victims of wars past and present. If anything, my deep sadness for Cecil laid open my heart so that the depth of human suffering is even more present and prescient.
Compassion, the ability to empathize with and the motivation to relieve the suffering of others, is not a limited commodity. Like its counterparts, the other brahma viharas (divine abodes)—kindness, empathetic joy and equanimity—compassion is boundless. Practicing compassion, opening to our own suffering and the suffering of others, increases our capacity for empathy and compassion for all beings.
Compassion is described as the “quivering of the heart” in response to the suffering of others. To say that my heart quivered at Cecil’s plight, and the plight of so many other endangered animals that spend their last moments terrified and in pain for the sake of a trophy hunter’s ego, is an understatement. In order not to be overtaken by sadness, I had to digest his suffering very slowly, limiting my exposure to the details of his demise. I would back off when the pain was too much—an expression of compassion for myself.
Compassion is not a reticent quality, however. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Compassion is a verb.” Compassion motivates us to act to alleviate the suffering that surrounds us. And we all suffer at times. Opening to our own suffering is at the heart of practicing compassion. Knowing what it is to suffer—not just as a concept, but from direct experience—connects us with the suffering of others. When we can feel the suffering, deep down in our cells, as I have most recently with Cecil, we are moved to act.
Sometimes the action we take to alleviate suffering can be far reaching. The 18th-century forest monk Ryokan wrote: “Oh, that my monk’s robes were wide enough to gather up all the suffering people in this floating world.”
But we do not have to gather up all suffering beings to practice compassion. Reaching out to a single being who’s in pain is enough. No act of kindness is ever wasted. We may work to rehome refugees, help an impoverished child receive an education, serve meals to the homeless in our community, reach out to veterans suffering from PTSD, adopt a shelter cat or dog, or we can listen deeply to a friend who’s going through a hard time. Acts of compassion, no matter how seemingly small, and no matter to whom or what they are directed, have tremendous power in our world and in our own hearts.
Joseph Goldstein, meditation teacher and cofounder of Insight Meditation Society says: “There’s no particular prescription for what we should do. There’s no hierarchy of compassionate action. We shouldn’t think that some actions are more compassionate than others. The field of compassion is limitless, because it is the field of suffering beings, and we each find our own path.”
So please do not discount your own motivations and acts of compassion, no matter how small. And please don’t dismiss others who care deeply about the lives of any other being, even if those beings don’t especially touch your own heart. My lifelong history as a friend and caretaker of animals moves me to support causes that alleviate their suffering. What resonates deeply for another person may be entirely different, but that person’s compassion is no less important than mine.
Compassion connects us with others and allows us to see past our own, often self-centered, desires. It is a tremendously positive force in our world. Without compassion, our world would be a harsh, narcissistic place.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s powerful poem, “Please Call Me By My True Names,” asks us not only to connect with the suffering of victims of cruelty, but also to recognize the seeds of the perpetrators in ourselves so that our compassion can reach all beings. I’m still working on generating compassion for the Walter Palmers and Dylann Roofs of the world. Reviled as Palmer has become, I’m sure his life is not a happy one right now. Among the many emotions I feel when I think of him and others who take pleasure from killing other beings, compassion is not so close to the surface yet. This motivates me to keep practicing.
We don’t always have the capacity to feel compassion for every single being, but we can practice. Compassion is, after all, a practice. Little by little, with enough practice, patience and humility, compassion can become our home.
Please Call Me By My True Names
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass snake who, approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.