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Compassion and Sorrow

In an election season that has spoken to our worst instincts rather than our highest aspirations, it’s been a struggle to conclude that kindness still has a place. I turn to the things that give me comfort, and reconfirm that we’ve not totally lost our best parts. Usually those reflections start close to home.

Over the years my son has said many things to me that I cherish and remember. In the telling of stories, the sharing of thoughts and the crafting of dreams, he revealed himself piece by piece until he formed into a boy, into a young man, into a thoughtful, ambitious, compassionate companion to the world around him.

Through it all, I learned a few things, too. I remember the moments when it became clear in the glimpses of his thoughts that he was coming about as his own person, influenced by family, friends and events, but independent of them, too. And no lesson he gave me surpasses the few words he said on that most horrible day, September 11th, 2001.

We know the day – where we were, what we felt, the stunned amazement that such a thing could happen, the immense sense of loss, the quiet foreboding that things might only get worse. I went numb as I saw the images as we all watched together at my office. We went home, then, and I gathered Michael from his Montessori school. He was surprised to see me, and he really didn’t know why so many others mothers and fathers had come to pick up his friends. He certainly didn’t understand why there were so many tears that day.

I took him home and set him about playing with his favorite things. I made absolutely certain that no television and no radio was in range for him to hear about a real world that had suddenly grown ominous and dark. He was three years old. He’d have time enough later to absorb the sorrows and flames of our collective nature.

Near the end of the day I was cooking dinner in the kitchen, fragile myself, shaky and afraid, but focused on being a father. Protect your son. Protect yourself. Protect the beauty of morning sunrises and bright blue skies, protect the delicate faith of man. Protect gentility, and compassion, and integrity, even in the face of overwhelming proof that such things might be little more than illusions. Protect it all as best you can.

As I was stirring the macaroni and cheese, Michael came into the kitchen and tugged on my sleeve. To this day I do not know what compelled him to say what he did, or where he learned what had happened, or even if he had seen the terrible images of that day. But the words lie deep within me, and they will never fade:

“Daddy, maybe if you and I work real hard, we can make those people feel better.”

I turned off the stove and excused myself, told Michael that I would be right back, then went upstairs to my bedroom, closed the door, and for the first time let the sobs come. …..

We are born to compassion. We emerge from the womb in innocence and trust, instinctively a part of everything and everyone that surrounds us. We raise our tiny lips to find the warmth of a mother’s breast, feel her breath, and hold close to the flesh that comforts us. We hear laughter around us, and respond as best we can, our hearts lightened by the sound itself. We sleep dreamlessly, and wake to the wonder of each day’s discoveries.

We are born this way, and then we grow. We complicate ourselves with flimsy desires, and false wants, and a dash to race ahead, all the while leaving behind who and what we are born to. We cultivate our worries, and create new alarms. Wonder fades, innocence fades, and joy grows tawdry. Kindness is judged as weakness, and strength comes with a closed fist. Compassion becomes a cliché.

On September 11th my son’s innocence formed the spine of compassion. He taught me this, and I love him for it, and so many other things, but this alone still guides my way.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

- Naomi Shihab Nye


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