More Beauty


Dirk Willem Venter –
Even though this photograph was taken almost fifteen years ago, the day I met Mr. Mandela still stands out in my memory. I heard many stories of how lucky we were to have a great man such as him as our president and although I was very small, I felt a deep awe at being lucky enough to meet him face to face. As time passed and his distinctive voice filled my ears my understanding about what a blessing he was for our country grew.
He visited Worcester for the official launch of the Blue Train. I was selected from a group of students from my school to hand him a gift. I remember being nervous and a little apprehensive as I didn’t know what to expect when meeting such a great man. He did not talk down to me as grown up to kid, but instead smiled and told me how happy he was to meet me and my fellow students from the Pioneer school.
I did not know it then, but meeting him truly changed my life. I am one of only three completely blind students in the country to study BSc Computer Science. His example taught me to never give up and never regard myself too highly above others.

The Contagion of Sadness


 

Sadness is not contagious.  In our valiant efforts to be constructive and positive in a world full of difficulty, we can mistake avoiding the distress of others for a way of maintaining our own positivity.

Thanks to our mirror neurons and our natural empathy with other living creatures, encountering sadness most definitely touches us and can even make us feel upset.

But while avoiding the pain of others may momentarily make us feel better, it doesn’t really contribute to our own well-being – or even our own happiness.

Engaging with others in their suffering has an important place in our development as individuals and as societies.

The Charter for Compassion, founder, Karen Armstrong, has some interesting points to make about this subject.

In Buddhism, compassion (karuna) is defined as a determination to liberate others from their grief, something that is impossible if we do not admit to our own unhappiness and misery…It is, of course, important to encourage the positive, but it is also crucial sometimes to allow ourselves to mourn…Today there is often a degree of heartlessness in our determined good cheer, because if we simply tell people to be ‘positive’ when they speak to us of their sorrow, we may leave them feeling misunderstood and isolated in their distress.  Somebody once told me that when she had cancer, the hardest thing of all was her friends’ relentless insistence that she adopt a positive attitude; they refused to let her discuss her fears – probably because they were frightened by her disease and found it an uncomfortable reminder of their own mortality… (1)

Life is hard and trying to maintain a constructive and positive outlook is both necessary and challenging.  The distress of others will seldom prove to be a cause of unbearable suffering within ourselves.  Occasionally, someone else’s story may resonate so strongly with our own that we do feel pain – but that pain is not caused by anyone else’s pain, it is our own pain. It is already there and might just need an occasional remembrance if we are to maintain a mostly positive and constructive outlook.

There are consequences for us collectively, and as individuals, when we intentionally turn away from the pain we encounter.  We might believe we are better off because we have avoided any collateral sadness involved, but we may well have paid a very high price for this momentary comfort.

Because when we do this we lose something so important it isn’t worth the tiny gain – we lose not only an opportunity to bring comfort to another human being but also the strongest thread that can bring us to our own happiness – a connection to our personal suffering.  Without this connection we can’t offer compassion to ourselves and so, we will struggle with our quest for happiness, no matter how often we look the other way.

As Karen Armstrong puts it so beautifully,

…make a conscious effort to look back on the events that have caused you distress in the past…Make a deliberate effort to inhabit those moments fully and send a message of encouragement and sympathy to your former self.  The object of this exercise is not to leave you wallowing in self-pity.  The vivid memory of painful times past is a reservoir on which you can draw when you try to live according to the Golden Rule.*  By remembering your own sorrow vividly, you will make it possible for yourself to feel empathy with others. (2)

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*There are many variants of the Golden Rule but they all boil down to the same message – Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.

(1) Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, pp 72-3

(2) ibid, p. 73

Two young children, one crying. 1922. Stanley Field Expedition to British Guiana

Participants: Bror E. Dahlgren and John R. Millar

Sometimes a Trail of Tears can lead to Kindness


The Trail of Tears is the name given to the forced relocation of Native Americans following the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  The relocation was mostly from the southeastern United States to present day Oklahoma.  The removal included the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations.

This forced movement not only dispossessed many Native American nations, it also resulted in thousands of deaths from exposure, disease and starvation. The name, Trail of Tears, originates from a description of the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831.

Sixteen years later, in 1847, the Choctaw survivors of the Trail of Tears heard of the Great Famine in Ireland. They heard about the dispossession and starvation that had been going on in Ireland since 1845. Though clearly not wealthy or advantaged themselves, they responded by collecting $710 and sending it to help starving Irish men, women and children.

According to a written account at the time, “Traders, missionaries, and (Indian) agency officials contributed, but the greater part of the money was supplied by the Indians themselves.“(1)

The Choctaw sent the money to Memphis – one of the cities in which the military had gathered them before they set out on the Trail of Tears.  From there it made its way to Irish famine victims.

The astounding actions of the Choctaw are an example of how suffering acquires meaning when it is transmuted into understanding and generosity.

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Photograph – Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland.

(1) https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/michael/www/choctaw/retrace.html

Not Splitting Hairs


It’s not splitting hairs to say that actions speak louder than words.

Or that talk is cheap,

Or even free.

The only currency that you can really bank on

Is action.

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Photograph – Rockport’s Barbershop 02/1973 – Photographer: Parks, Deborah

Persistent URL: http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/action/ExternalIdSearch?id=548244

Repository: Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD, 20740-6001.

The Story of the Long Spoons


There is a Jewish folk tale that tells the story of a man who wanted to understand Heaven and Hell.

First, he travelled to Hell.

Here, row after row of table was piled high with platters of food yet the people seated around the tables were starving to death. Each person held a full spoon but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so they couldn’t bend either elbow to bring the food to their mouths.

Next he went to Heaven.

The setting was the same here as in Hell – row after row of long tables laden with food and all the people had their arms splinted so that they couldn’t bend their elbows. But the people in Heaven were happy and well fed.

He couldn’t work out why things were so different so he watched for a while.

As he watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him. The recipient   thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.

The man ran back to Hell to tell the poor souls trapped there what he had discovered.  He whispered the solution in the ear of a starving man – “You don’t have to be hungry,” he said. “Use your spoon to feed your neighbour and then he will return the favour and feed you.”

But instead of being grateful, the starving man became angry.

“What are you talking about?” he shouted.  “You expect me to feed that man?  I hate him!  I would rather starve than give him the pleasure of eating.”

Then the man understood – both Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference was in the way they  treated each other.

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Rescue Work – Dayton, March, 1913

Persistent URL: hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.12020

Call Number: LC-B2- 2576-2

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Ubuntu


Chris Abani

Chris Abani

The Nigerian writer, Chris Abani describes the African philosophical concept of Ubuntu as, “…the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.”

In 2008, Desmond Tutu said –

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity. 

Butterfly Effects for Change – Part 8

“What I’ve come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand Messianic gestures but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft – almost invisible  – acts of compassion  – everyday acts of compassion.” (Chris Abani)

Kindness


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (2nd from right) ...

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (2nd from right) in the Selma Civil Rights March with Martin Luther King

In any environment the atmosphere will moderate the growth.  Kindness allows all the conditions essential for human growth and development to exist.

Kindness is often misrepresented as a fuzzy, soppy state, devoid of rationality and reserved for children and animals who don’t know any better.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.  To be really kind requires such rationality, insight and self-mastery that it is an achievement of the highest order.

When I was young, I admired clever people.  Now that I am old, I admire kind people. – Abraham Joshua Heschel

Me too.

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Why Virtue?


Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle said, We are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good, for otherwise there would be no profit in it. (1)

The acquisition of virtues is not an antiquated mode of being, it’s a vital framework for human life.  Virtues are like instructions in a manual for living productively.  We think of things like love and kindness and loyalty and trustworthiness as pleasant optional extras that will make our lives more pleasant – but they are much more than that.  Cultivating real virtues – not nominal ones – creates the environment necessary for spectacular human growth.  And that, as Aristotle might have said, is where the profit in virtue exists.

…for the human reality may be compared to a seed. If we sow the seed, a  mighty tree appears from it. The virtues of the seed are revealed in the tree; it puts forth branches, leaves, blossoms, and produces fruits. All these virtues were hidden and potential in the seed. Through the blessing and bounty of cultivation these virtues became apparent. (2)

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(1) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

(2) ‘Abdul’Baha, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.87