COMPASSION amidst the terror

  • PublishedNovember 7, 2013

Who knew you could feel so much? Who knew it could hurt so much. That the tears could fall so hard, the fear cut so deep, that the pulsation of shockwaves resonate so powerfully. Yet, we came together, we cried together, gave blood together, prayed together and supported one another. Some of us even risked our lives to help, in any possible way, while others portrayed unbelievable bravery amidst the chaos and terror. And then there were those of us who sacrificed our lives to save others. Suddenly we’re forced to recognize how connected, how intertwined, how dependent, how vulnerable and how human we all are and we surrender ourselves to love and togetherness.

That is empathy.  That is compassion. That is the very best of humanity, beauty of being human and being one with our fellow human beings. That is recognizing, whether by force or choice, that the separation between you and I, the gulf between your body and mine, your mind and mine, is extremely porous and quite possibly insignificant, if it even exists at all. Your pain is mine.

Our wounds burn together. I may not have physically suffered as you have, but I will carry you, cry with you and nourish you with any kind of nourishment I’m able to give. I will care for you, pray for you and hold your hand through the darkness of grief, walking step by step towards glimmers of hope.

Then there are those of us who had opportunity and justified reckless abandon and deep-seated resentment, while feigning masks of nobility. We grabbed a front row seated to the once in a lifetime epic drama unfolding before us. We scrambled to be the first to see, the first to report, the first to proudly offer the ‘true’ story, whether based on reality or not. We were there first, we rationalized, only we have the authority to tell the story and to feel the trauma.

Some of us arrogantly ran towards what we believed to be rightfully ours. We were risking our lives for the greedy, the unfairly wealthy Kenyans and manipulative Westerners. We saved them, so yes, we have the right to take advantage of the free goods on display. After all, we aren’t stealing and we certainly are not hoodlums looting street kiosks. We’re merely compensating ourselves, taking what we’ve always deserved. And what difference does some thousands of shillings, or a necklace or two make to the wealthy?

For others, we suddenly found ourselves in the spotlight, forced to explain the facts when all we had were assumptions, answering questions we barely understood. It was our job to secure, protect and serve, but the magnitude of the situation was overwhelming. Dare we display the almost crippling fear inside us or appear helpless in any manner, we will have failed, at our jobs and as the strong human beings we are meant to be. So we spoke false truths when we had to, offered distractions and did our best to shift the focus elsewhere as we struggled to manage the mess.

We walked in and secured, protected and served, even if the results of our actions caused insecurity and destruction. We displayed confidence, courage and the iron fist of justice because that was and is our duty. Did we have any other options? Do you know what it’s like to take charge of such a situation? Have you offered your life on the line of duty? No? Then please, shut up.

Finally, there are those of us, dare I say ‘us’, who were there to take center stage, to garner the world’s attention and to demonstrate what wrath, vengeance, fury, justice, hatred, power really is. We have been the ones suffering. We are the ones who have been beaten down, tortured, raped, crucified and corrupted by your doings.

Don’t you see that we are sacrificing our lives here? And that we only do this for  justifiable reasons? We are only fighting because we have to, because you forced us to. Yes our actions are extreme, but this is the only way we will truly get your attention and make you understand what you have done to us. And we know that our resolute faith will carry us towards redemption. If you think it’s easy to commit to violence and the very worst of humanity, then you are wrong. We were once compassionate individuals, but we were weak and you took advantage of us. And so we grew strong, we learnt how to wear the cloak of terror while ignoring our weak, pathetically emotional nature. We don’t shoot children because we have to, you must understand that this is our duty.

We have been called for this, we are serving a greater good and we know that in heaven we will be forgiven by our master, our father. And that is more important than our actions here on earth. One more thing, we do feel disgust and guilt. But we are more disgusted by you, and our guilt is the devil distracting us from the virtue of our cause. You wouldn’t understand that because you are corrupted, immoral and born to dance with the devil on our pure, virtuous souls. We are all suffering. Yes, some more than others, but this is not a competition and even if it was, no one wins. There is no justification for any type of horrendous, violent actions nor is there any explanation for senseless tragedy. But know that the person stealing jewelry was once an eager, fragile, teenager, and that bystander gapping ignorantly maybe a caring father. Know that those delusional monsters that carried out these unfathomable acts were once, perhaps a long time ago, pure, beautiful, innocent babies whose eyes radiated joy, curiosity and love.

Throughout our lifelong journey we face many choices, choices that determine who we are going to be, choice that change our destinies, which affect the destinies of others and which cannot be undone. We usually think that these choices will be grand, dramatic affairs, clearly stating their arrival and the gravity of the decisions we must make. Should you marry that individual, should you accept that job, should you choose a night of pleasure or rest, words of compassion or bitter truth?

We label these decisions as right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral and draw a thick red line between the two options. We take pride in choosing right, good and morality; these decisions prove to ourselves and to all that we are good, worthy individuals.

And when we make the wrong choice, we weep in shame, are brought to our knees with guilt, and carry our disgraceful labels with us wherever we go, forever cursed and unworthy.

But the choices that really matter are made each and every day. They are small, subtle, perceivable irrelevant in the bigger picture. But they are also repetitive, made one moment at a time, and many moments over time. A two-minute decision today becomes a split second unconscious reaction many tomorrows later. That difficult action you take now will become a thoughtless habit sooner than you imagine.

These choices are not confined to decisions or actions, we make choices every single second about what to think, which thoughts we allow to occupy our mind. These thoughts become feelings, sensations, desires and actions. And if you think about the same thing over and over again for a long enough period of time your brain rewires itself to make access to that thought easier, the same way it helps muscles repeat practiced actions quickly. Weak connections become strong ones; passing thoughts become impenetrable beliefs. One day you’re a lost, despairing teenager, the next day you encounter someone who offers you connection and something to believe in, and eventually you become a trained, ruthless killer. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with time and a series of similar choices, you reach a point of no return.

There are two beliefs I maintain with staunch resolution: One. We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, but spiritual beings on a human journey, and two. We are all connected in mysterious ways to the very source of creation, we are cut from the same cloth, so to speak, and we all share a fundamental nature; one that is pure, conscious, peaceful, radiant, loving and wise. How we end up becoming who we become is a matter of nurture, of many conscious decisions of others and eventually ourselves.

And so those of us who become heroes, who run towards chaos with nothing but courage and conviction, who give blood, water, food, shelter, money and, most importantly, compassion, are a consequence of small choices made, over time, towards love, with love and because of love.

Those of us who become monsters, killers, thieves, ignorant naysers and dishonest leaders are a consequence of small choices made, over time, towards fear, with fear, and because of fear. It is really that simple and, over time, that complex.

I ended last month’s article with a promise and a challenge. A sweeping, wild-hearted attempt to shine a light on my ability to empathize and to judge how opaque or transparent I am to sensing or feeling what others feel. And I challenged you to do the same. As it turns out I am a feeler and a believer. My hypersensitive allows me to feel much deeper than I’d often desire to, but to also understand and relate in ways that I choose to use to my advantage. I certainly judge and there are definitely limits to my empathy; for example, I sometimes ask myself if I would have felt such utter sadness if the attack didn’t occur so close to home, if it happened in a Mombasa shopping center, for example, as opposed to the mall that is frequented by my friends and family.

Though I clearly have my limitations, the moments where self-interest reigns supreme, I know that more often than not I choose love and connection over fear. And I know that that is a choice that I need to make each and everyday. The choice that if you and I and everyone around us makes, in our own individual ways, will create a community that truly cares, protects, and serves us all; a society that consistently brings out the best in humanity. So I ask, as you go about your day, will you make a choice, however minuscule or momentous, towards fear or love?

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