Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.
Without them, humanity cannot survive.
— The Dalai Lama
I’ve been visiting my grandfather at the senior citizens home for some time now. He moved in here when he broke his hip and couldn’t look after himself at home anymore. I go about once a week, and at first I did it as the dutiful grandson, thinking of it as an obligation, but gradually, over the years, I’ve come to enjoy these visits.
We’ve talked about politics, sports, the weather, his life, my life. I’ve asked him questions about everything—marriage, sex, health, religion, what’s important in life and what’s not. I figured that from his perspective he’s probably seen and understood more things than a young person like myself could possibly fathom. I wanted to plumb the depths of the distilled wisdom that’s contained within a man who has lived past a hundred.
But now, at a hundred and seven, he hardly talks at all. I’m lucky to get a sentence or two out of him. But still I come. I push him around in his wheelchair, maybe take him out for some fresh air or feed him lunch, and sometimes, when I know he’s alert, I’ll talk to him about what’s happening in my life.
Today, as I sit beside him, his eyes are glazed and he’s showing no sign of even recognizing that I’m here.
«Grampa, can you hear me?» I ask for the third or fourth time. No reply. I’ve brought my newly published book and want to read him a section where he is mentioned. He doesn’t know about the passage and I wanted to surprise him with it. But now I’m feeling I’ve left it too late.
I decide I’ll read it anyway. What have I got to lose? «Why don’t people use praise more often?» I begin, quoting one of my grandfather’s favourite expressions. The passage goes on to say how people respond more favourably to praise than criticism, and it’s written from my grandfather’s perspective. I continue to read, unsure if he’s hearing or not, but then I look up to see him smiling, with tears in his eyes. He’s not saying anything, but I suddenly know he’s hearing every word.
Somehow sensing that this might be the last time I see him alive, I pour out my feelings. How much he’s meant to me. What I’ve learned from him. How much I love him. I take his limp hand into mine and just sit with him in silence.
«Grampa I’ve got to go,» I finally say, but I don’t go. I just sit there looking at his hundred-and-seven-year-old face.
Finally I do leave, and as I’m driving away, I’m thinking about how much these weekly visits have meant to me. I know he heard me today and that the reading truly touched him. I know it made him feel good, and this makes me feel fantastic. My visit brought some joy into his life, but it’s brought immense joy into mine.
As I stop at a traffic light I also realize that, all these years where I thought I was helping him, he was helping me. I was the real beneficiary of these visits. Whatever he received, I received tenfold, and it’s only now that I’m realizing it.
He died a few days later.
Goodness is its own reward.
When we help others we are actually helping ourselves. The joy and happiness that love and compassion for others bring is one of the best-kept secrets of humanity. The benefits are so enormous and consistent that you have to wonder why we don’t practice such kindness more often. Helping others always makes us feel good.
Think back to times when you’ve given of yourself completely. Maybe you nursed a sick friend back to health, helped in a soup kitchen, coached the school football team, volunteered to raise money for some charity. How did it make you feel? And why did it make you feel so good? What is there in loving and helping one another that is so nurturing to our souls? Perhaps in doing so we are rediscovering our connectedness to one another. A hidden part of us thrills with joy when we reach out to one another in simple, everyday ways.
Ram Dass said it well in explaining what happens when we help one another: «Caring for one another we sometimes glimpse an essential quality of our being. We may be sitting alone, lost in self-doubt or self-pity, when the phone rings with a call from a friend who’s really depressed. Instinctively we come out of ourselves, just to be there with her and say a few reassuring words. When we’re done, and a little comfort’s been shared, we put down the phone and feel a little more at home with ourselves. We’re reminded of who we really are and what we have to offer one another.»
Unfortunately, our lives are busy. Sometimes we feel there’s no time to help. There are always so many things we have to do, and they all seem so important. But if we do not value helping one another; if we do not see this as an important part of our growth and development, what does that say about us? What path are we on if loving kindness is not a part of our journey? Do we really think that making more money, watching another night of TV, or going out to a fine restaurant will ultimately make us happier?
We search for happiness in romance, achievements, possessions, exciting experiences, and all of these bring us some satisfaction, but always more is needed. The paradox is that if we are totally preoccupied with only our own happiness, we will never truly achieve it.
The Japanese have a word for neurotic self-preoccupation. It is seikatsu onchi; a term loosely translated as «tone-deaf about life.» This condition has us totally preoccupied with only ourselves. Every event and circumstance in our life is measured by how it affects us personally. Others are not considered. This self-centredness is the cause of most of our suffering. Think about it. When you’re unhappy, are you thinking about yourself or others? Always yourself. This should teach us something.
Goodwill is the mightiest practical force in the universe.
— Talmudic Proverb
The world mourned the passing of Mother Theresa, and rightly so, but the truth is that there are thousands of unknown Mother Theresas working out there, helping to make our world a kinder and gentler place. Emelda Damani is one of them.
Mother Emelda, as everyone calls her, founded and operates the «Welcome Home Centre,» a drop-in shelter in downtown Johannesburg. A devout Christian, she ministers to the homeless and most destitute not with religion, but with love.
Each day, as her doors open at 7 a.m., people drift in for some coffee and a place to relax, but mostly for Mother’s love. I was helping there one day and watched while she brushed the hair of a young prostitute, listening to the girl describe her night’s exploits and traumas. When the girl finished, Mother embraced her, wrapping her arms around the young woman, and simply said, «Mother loves you.» No advice. No condemnation. Just unconditional love.
Do all the good you can, by all the means you can,
In al the ways you can, in all the places you can,
At all the times you can, to all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
— John Wesley
«The centre is called the Welcome Home Centre because everyone is welcome,» Mother Emelda says. «Many people are hurting. I am just one woman. I cannot help everyone, but everyone who comes here I will love.»
The practice of loving kindness is simply being open and responsive to others. It is helping one another through small acts of kindness and compassion. Not once in a while, but regularly and consistently, so we lose our sense of isolation and begin to feel our oneness, and the joy that such oneness brings.
Our mind may try to conceptualize the idea that, «We are all one,» but we can never know this with only our mind. Not even an enlightened mind can know this. But our hearts know this truth intimately.
The practice of loving kindness involves loving ourselves as well. Compassion is not just for others, but for ourselves too. In many ways it must start with ourselves. For until we can love and appreciate ourselves, we cannot love and appreciate others. We must learn to see ourselves without the harsh glare of self-criticism, and come to the conclusion that we are good and worthy in who we are now, just as we are now.
This is not always easy. We live in a society and culture that holds up almost impossible ideals that we think we have to match. The millionaire, the celebrity, the beautiful model; success is often measured in what you’ve achieved, how much money you make or how good-looking you are. And if we fall short of these ideals we deem ourselves unworthy. It is time to awaken from this nightmare. We have spent most of our lives struggling to be something different from what we are, to have more money, be more successful, better looking, smarter, thinner, more fit. In doing this we have too often created a sense of inferiority in who we are now.
I am looking at the flowering dogwood tree through my window this beautiful spring morning. It is blooming magnificently. I have had my coffee and am preparing to write but there it is, demanding my attention, and I am seduced. Each year it seems to flower more and more gloriously, and this morning it is really putting on a show. I’m just sitting here and enjoying it immensely. I am not examining it minutely for every little flaw, though I’m sure there are some. I do not say this flower is beautiful but that one is so-so, and this one could be bigger and that one not so nice. Or this branch is too weak, that one too short, this one too long and looks funny, out of place. I do not. I just sit and appreciate it for what it is, enjoying it immensely.
I can sit and enjoy the beauty of the dogwood, but not the beauty of me. What is wrong here? Am I less than the dogwood tree? What is this neurotic self-examination, this fault-finding, nit-picking feeling going on inside me that makes me feel ashamed, not good enough, unworthy, inferior? Why must I be anything other than what I am?
— Excerpt from John Kehoe’s «A Vision of Power & Glory.»
A great many of our problems in life occur because we don’t always appreciate ourselves. Developing appreciation for ourselves allows us to see our potential as well as our problems. We discover that even though we’re not perfect, there is still immense value and beauty in who we are. This is reassuring. Being open and honest with ourselves helps us to be open with others. We learn that we can relate with others on the basis of the goodness and beauty we discover in ourselves. And doing so, the results in our life are both enormous and startling.
When my daughter was small she got the dubious part of the Bethlehem star in a Christmas play. After her first rehearsal she burst through the door with her costume, a five-pointed star lined in shiny gold tinsel designed to drape over her like a sandwich board. ‘What exactly will you be doing in the play?’ I asked her. ‘I just stand there and shine,’ she told me. I’ve never forgotten that response.
— Sue Monk Kidd
When we open our hearts large enough to include ourselves and let go of our harsh judgements, something wonderful happens within. We flower and grow strong in this ever-present love and acceptance. Our inner light burns brighter and we are amazed to see ourselves as special and unique, to see our true worth.
The practice of nourishing ourselves and others in this way allows us to become strong and self-assured. Unconditional, total love is called for. No part of ourselves or others is to be omitted. Even the unappealing parts are to be loved and accepted. This is the challenge. And when we rise to the challenge, great alchemy takes place. There is a new dawning. A life without shame or judgement. A life nourished from within. A life of self-acceptance. A life of loving kindness towards all.