The sometimes dirty business of being compassionate

Today I went on an excursion into New Haven for art supplies and some leisure time at the Yale Museum of Art (outstanding and free) and for lunch at my favorite restaurant/ craft beer bar, The Cask Republic. Surprisingly, after being in Branford, CT for over a year now, this was my first day trip like this into the city. There is easy train service as well as bus service into New Haven yet I have been content to go in only on those days when I had to do errands in our truck. It was nice to get out and be in a different place. Being in the city though can be exhausting for me as I seem to pick up the energy of the people and the place pretty often and I am just a country boy by nature.

Today I at times felt a little like Siddhartha on his first sojourn outside the palace walls. The people I see in cities often seem as though they are to quote Bono of U2, “counting down for the pain to stop.” So many faces, expressions, habits , and mannerisms that bespeak of merely existing rather than living or living almost entirely in a painful place (I’ve been there and it sucks). I saw a family walking down the sidewalk where the woman was clearly in distress about something, her male partner pushing the stroller seemingly oblivious to her frantic torrent of words and to the small child breathing second hand smoke from his dangling cigarette. What can I do as a compassionate being in that moment as I witness such a scene? A well meaning question or offer of help may be met with a ferocious response from a person in such pain. I often just send a mental word of peace to all concerned as I walk past and hope that is enough. Is it?

Later at the train platform, I heard a woman say something about a poor bird and then looked down to see a grey catbird on the concrete near my feet. I immediately bent down and gently picked it up to get it out of the way of foot traffic. The beautiful bird was clearly in pain, gasping for breath and almost certainly suffering a great deal. Without any forethought I put some reiki symbols on it, mostly hoping to calm it down and then I placed it on the top of an emergency phone box to be safe. All the while I was looking at it and mentally saying how beautiful the bird is and that I loved it. These thoughts just came of their own volition seemingly from deep within me. Meanwhile there are many people on the platform with me that may have been wondering what the hell I was doing talking to an injured bird. My goal was to alleviate the suffering of the poor creature but only if it was clear that it would die painfully without any further assistance.

I left the bird there as a train pulled in on its way to the main station in New Haven. As it went by the conductor, who was leaning out her door to tell us all that our train would be coming soon from the other direction, noticed the bird as it tried unsuccessfully to fly from its perch to safety away from trains and people. I took this as a sign that the bird was indeed too infirm to live without a great deal of pain. Moving quickly, I grabbed the bird and in one motion as if butchering a chicken twisted and pulled its head off and then tossed the lifeless carcass onto the rocks surrounding the tracks. The bird was free of its pain and I had bird shit and blood on my hands with no way to wash them. I felt completely fine with that though content that I had done something compassionate for the beautiful catbird that no one else seemed willing or skilful enough to do.

I suppose the lesson for me to notice is that sometimes being compassionate can be messy. It can be messy when it gets in the way of our beliefs such as when we come to see those painted as “enemies” as real human beings. It can be messy because it is often unpopular to view the world through the compassionate lens because when we do we are then forced to make more mindful choices about the ways we live our lives, the resources we consume, and the systems we support with the money we spend. Can we see the world compassionately and still buy sweat shop made or even slave made goods? Can we look at our world compassionately and and see issues such as the politics regarding incarceration, immigration, and labor reform the same way and with the same “solutions” that we now have? I doubt that we could. Yet people of every major faith are called to be compassionate. Surely that means we need to get our hands a little dirtier. It starts where we live, work, and play. Let’s do this.

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