I hesitate to say it, given the depth of the tragedies that took place in Boston & Texas (and some would say in the Senate) these past few days, but what has happened to our empathy and compassion?
We have it in spades when it comes to the victims of any crime we see as senseless – and of course it is deserving in those cases as well – but empathy for the victims is easy. (Not misplaced, but easy.)
What about empathy for the perpetrators? What about compassion?
As the police in Boston closed in on the second bombing suspect yesterday – the younger Tsarnaev brother – I found myself hoping he would not be killed. I have no idea what prompted this young man to take part in such a heinous endeavor – whether he was simply trying to impress an older brother or truly had some deep unmet needs and inner rage of his own – but all I could think was how sad it was. How sad that his own promising life had come to this. What if someone had been able to reach out to him on Monday morning, giving him the strength to walk away? Sometimes all it takes is a kind word to change the course of a life. Could that have happened?
We’ll never know, and if he is convicted (because another thing we seem to have forgotten is that in our system a person is innocent until proven guilty, and not the other way around) he will most assuredly be dealt the death penalty. Many people will say he deserves it.
But I’m writing this, not to focus on young Mr. Tsarnaev, but on the rest of us. We’re an angry mob who say we believe in peace only when things are peaceful but who quickly turn to judgment and calls for retribution and violence when tragedy strikes. My belief is that if we can cultivate empathy and compassion in ourselves towards others – especially those who have wronged us – then we do ourselves and the world a much greater service than the anger, vitriol and hate we spew forth to anyone who will listen (as well as to those who won’t) whenever a tragedy occurs.
Showing empathy towards your enemy is not the same thing as condoning their acts. In fact, only hate gives them power, empathy undermines it.
It sounds simple, but it isn’t. I write this not just as a reminder to others but also to remind myself that not all evil acts are perpetrated by evil people. That in fact most people have the capacity to love and show kindness, even if they have lost their way.
As the very wise Dalai Lama XIV said, ““You must not hate those who do wrong or harmful things; but with compassion, you must do what you can to stop them — for they are harming themselves, as well as those who suffer from their actions.” [Added emphasis is mine]