I had planned to talk to you this morning about Notre Dame’s winning the national championship and thereby restoring the moral order of the universe, but because of a slight change in circumstances, I’ve had to alter my text. Roll Tide and let the chaos reign!
As a belated Christmas present, a colleague gave me a book on how to become a more compassionate human being. I wasn’t entirely sure what prompted this particular gesture or how I should react to a gift of this nature, but I did read the book, and I hope that you will notice a profound difference in my behavior in the next few weeks.
Two stories from the book:
First, there was a news story about a boy who got lost in the Colorado woods in the dead of winter. As hypothermia set in and he began to freeze, he saw from somewhere in the middle of the swirling snow, two large elk. (For my American cousins out there, you should know that elk are a very large species of deer.) Feebly, the boy threw stones at the elk and shouted until his voice gave way, before eventually losing consciousness. Early the next morning, he awoke and found himself sandwiched between the two great animals who had laid their warm bodies next to his through what would have been a fatal night.
That was the story the boy told the search team, when he was finally rescued. But they were naturally skeptical because hallucinations are often a side effect of extreme stress. When the boy led the team back to where he had slept, though, there in the snow, they found the imprints made by two enormous beasts, with the imprint of a small boy in between.
So my question is: Where does compassion come from? Are we actually hard-wired to care for others?
The second story starts with an insight from the great Jewish mystic, the Rabbi of Berditchev, who was known throughout the 19th century Europe as the “Master of the Good Eye.” It was said that he could see nothing of people’s sins, only their virtues. He’d roust the local drunk from his stupor on High Holy Day, seat him at the head of the table, and respectfully ask for his wisdom. He’d nudge a man who had publicly flouted the Sabbath by praising him as the only one in the village who wasn’t a hypocrite.
The rabbi’s inspiration was the Hebrew word “zechut,” a word which means to intentionally focus on what is most pure in each person – to see his or her highest and holiest potential.
The rabbi offered one example of zechut: A nurse was summoned to the obstetrics ward of her Arizona hospital. A Down’s Syndrome child had just been born, and the distraught mother was threatening to kill herself, rather than keep the baby. When the nurse saw the child, she immediately made a leap of faith. “I’ll take the baby home,” she announced. True to her word, the nurse did just that, and her daughter eventually bloomed into a functioning adult. “I didn’t see any defects,” the nurse confided. “I saw a blueprint for perfection.”
A final story, this one not from a book, but from Laidlaw Hall. Last year during a memorial service for Jonny Wookey, UCC ’08, his sister told us something important about her older brother. For those of you who may not have known him, Jonny was just a terrific young man, (He was our very first sustainability steward by the way) who was in his final year at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland when he died as a result of an accident.
During her tribute, she said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I was overweight as a kid, and one winter’s day when I was skating on a public rink, a couple of boys started making fun of me. ‘Hey, get off the ice. You’re going to break it!’
I knew Jonny was locked in his room, studying for exams, but I was so upset that I called him anyway. He stopped studying, ran right down to the rink, grabbed the two boys and put them in the public dressing room. I remember he actually stuck a hockey stick in the door, so that no one could go in or out of the room.
Some time later, those two boys walked out of the room, and came over and apologized to me, while Jonny looked on. When they were finished, Jonny ran back home because, like I said, he had exams.”
That story is a double gulper for me because it says so much about Jonny, and it captures so much of what I hope we are all striving for at UCC.
So my three takeaways are:
First, remember the story of the elk. Compassion is deeply rooted in all of us.
Second, try to emulate the “Master of the Good Eye” and know that compassion is not a gift so much as it is a path. The Good Eye is a shift of perception; it is an art that we all need to practice. There is a blueprint for perfection in everyone. We just need to look for it.
Finally, as we start 2013, let’s remember Jonny Wookey and understand that there will be times when we are called to go beyond self interest – even beyond our books — to meet the moment with courage and compassion.