My clock-radio is always set to wake me to the morning news. Sometimes I question the wisdom of this decision. Most of the stories that are broadcast in the morning are not especially uplifting or motivating. I often think that a tooth-rattling alarm might be more pleasant to wake to.
This morning’s news was especially hard to hear. Over one million people in Port au Prince Haiti, still living in tents and makeshift shelters following the devastating earthquake earlier this year, are facing both the threats of a cholera epidemic and a hurricane that is quickly bearing down on them. And there is no place for them to seek shelter.
How does one react or respond to devastation upon devastation like this. It is so massive. So mentally and emotionally unwieldy that it nurtures a sense of powerlessness and helplessness.
But I didn’t hit the “off” button. I continued to listen. And I’m glad I did.
The second story I heard on the radio came via Story Corps (which happens to be my all-time-favorite radio show, and if you haven’t listened to it, you truly should; their tagline is “Every Life Matters” — a rallying call I can really stand behind) In this morning’s segment, a woman named Showaye Selassie was being interviewed by a friend about her childhood, growing up with a mother who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. The greatest part of her mother’s constant, fearful delusions was that Showaye and her brother would be poisoned, killed, or kidnapped. They moved constantly from place to place since her mother was so convinced they were being followed. And so she never let her children out of sight. Every day she dropped her children off at school and then would wait outside until they were released at the end of the day. This deep and painful delusion persevered to the degree that she eventually locked her children in their rooms with a combination lock on the outside so that no one could get into their rooms. And as a consequence, the children could not get out.
When her friend that is interviewing her asks her what got her through such a painful childhood, her answer floored me: “I could have had it much worse. I could have had a parent who didn’t care about me. So even though she went through what she went through, I still consider her one of the most fascinating people I’ll ever meet.” The depth of compassion that arises from this simple statement is just stunning: Compassion for her own experience. Compassion for the child she was. Compassion for the mother who caused her so much pain and suffering. And also (and perhaps most importantly) compassion for children who suffer even more than she did, because the abuse they endure came from a lack of care, not an overweaning, overprotective, delusional love born of an uncontrollable mental illness. I felt so grateful to have heard her tale this morning.
There is a third encounter with the media that I had to reflect on today. I am a Facebook fan of Neale Donald Walsch, the author of Conversations with God. His post this morning said: “See everything for what it is; the perfect event perfectly timed to provide you with the perfect opportunity to express in the perfect way that which is Perfection Itself.” At first glance it seemed kind of glib to me. I have always had this slightly uncomfortable reaction to this kind of “everything for the best” theology. Sure it works in some circumstances: A friend loses her job and ultimately finds a job that is even better suited for her talents. “See?” you say with smiling and wise eyes that know all, “It was just perfect timing.” And she will smile and agree, that yes, everything worked out just as it should, with not a moment or an opportunity misplaced. And perhaps you both are right.
But would you dare lay your hand on the shoulder of a Haitian refugee of the earthquake who is homeless, stuggling to stay alive, and facing both the potential devastating epidemic and a hurricane and say to them, “This is a perfect moment, perfectly timed. Indeed, it is perfection Itself,”? Gosh, I sure hope not.
But before you dismiss Neale’s statement as hopelessly optimistic at best and unconsionably heartless at worst, stop and think — perhaps it is saying something deeper: maybe this moment in time — a moment where countless people, struck by devastation and powerless to change its course — is a perfect moment for you. Perhaps this very moment, a moment that finds you residing on this same earth, breathing the very same air as those whose depth of suffering is beyond your experience, your imagination, and your comprehension, is the most perfect moment to encounter your essential, God-given compassion. It is the perfect moment to reach out to your fellow human beings with understanding, with love, with strength, and with courage. When we are able to set aside our discursive negative thoughts about our own difficulties, our expectations of a painless life, and our sense of entitlement to it — when we are able to see clearly that the suffering of others is in fact our own suffering — we will see opportunities to express compassion and care — which in the end, I believe, is our greatest human calling. When there is nothing left to do, lower your bucket into the well of goodness that waits within your heart to be touched, and offer a cup of lovingkindness to those whose wells have run dry. When there is nothing left to do, offer compassion.
And any moment that we are able to touch and express our compassion, is indeed, the most perfect moment.
Post Script: You can still donate to many organizations that are providing relief to Haiti. James and I personally support the work of Mercy Corps, an organization that provides relief efforts and works for social and economic justice around the world.