Photo Credit: U.S. Army
Many of us feel shaken by the suffering experienced by those in war-torn regions. What are we to do, we may wonder, to be of service at a time like this? Some of us send prayers and thoughts, some go out to volunteer, some offer aid, and some participate in anti-war and anti-terrorism protests.
While each of us may forge our own path through the turbulence of our times, there is one common thread I want to invite us to weave through our shared quest to create a more beautiful world. It emerged for me during a conversation with a dear friend.
I was in London recently, grappling with how to process the unfolding events in the Middle East. I went over to the Indian Embassy to meet the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Vikram Doraiswami. We have been close, since our time in college. Early in our conversation I asked him, “Vikram, I know we only have 60 minutes. Can you educate me on these XYZ questions regarding Israel and Palestine?” After all, Vikram had been the ace history student during our time in college.
An hour later, as he wrapped up his illuminating commentary on the region’s history and current context, he paused, took a deep breath, and said, “Look, Hitendra. The details we’ve discussed, of who did what to whom, these are important. But the most important thing, for the people of this land, just like for all of us, is to never lose one’s humanity.” Suddenly, the details got pushed to the background, and a new, deeper truth was revealed, giving me the common thread I want to offer you now.
At a fraught moment like this, where there is much that so many risk to lose, let us not lose our humanity.
We lose our humanity when we allow our heart to become numb to the suffering of those who aren’t “one of our own”. We lose our humanity when we see a person or a group as wholly evil, rather than seeing them as being consumed by the instinct of evil. We lose our humanity when we take joy in another person’s pain, perhaps a person we believe has wronged us, rather than seeking to reform them or contain them.
A Tibetan monk, Lopal-La, spent 18 years imprisoned in China before escaping to India. He had been tortured while in prison. When the Dalai Lama met him after this long gap, he observed that Lopal-La was “physically OK...[his] mind still sharp after so many years in prison. He was still [the] same gentle monk.” Lopal-La was asked by the Dalai Lama if he had ever been afraid while in prison. He replied that he had experienced one grave danger in prison—the danger, he stated, of losing his compassion for his jailers. Ultimately, “he lived up to [his] 90s, with [a] very healthy and happy life.”
The skeptic in us might wonder, “Doesn’t this make you too soft? If this is how you operated, how would you ever make hard decisions in adversarial conditions?”
Let me ask you this. Can you have an argument with someone, without losing compassion for them? Could you fight someone, without losing compassion? And now let us stress-test this a bit further. Could you wage a war with someone, while holding on to your compassion?
The Pieta of Joan of Arc is a beautiful sculpture in Fort Drum, New York. It is based on first-hand accounts of Joan of Arc’s conduct in the battlefield, described in this passage from Mark Twain’s luminous book on the saint:
Toward the end of the day I came upon her where the dead and dying lay stretched all about in heaps and winrows; our men had mortally wounded an English prisoner who was too poor to pay a ransom, and from a distance she had seen that cruel thing done; and had galloped to the place and sent for a priest, and now she was holding the head of her dying enemy in her lap, and easing him to his death with comforting soft words, just as his sister might have done; and the womanly tears running down her face all the time.
Joan of Arc may have shed tears for the soldier in that moment, and yet it was she who had injected a fierce resolve in the French army to go out and fight, to defeat the British. Most wars are not righteous wars. But sometimes a community has had to, in history, take up arms to protect their freedom, as an instrument of last resort, and in such cases, the way to not lose your humanity is to do it the Joan of Arc way—with a pure heart, no desire for retribution, no hate, just a desire to be of service to a higher cause, in deep attunement with Spirit. We are being invited to be near-saints, to fight a righteous war.
And then the skeptic in us might come back to counter-argue, “Ah, this is just a myth! Who knows if this truly happened, with Joan of Arc? And anyway, it would have been easy for her to act this way since this dying soldier hadn’t snatched anything personal away from her!”
So let me tell you what happened nine years ago in the small town of Nour in Iran. A crowd of onlookers gathered there to watch Samareh Alinejad take her revenge. In her hands lay the fate of her son’s convicted killer, Bilal, who was seated blindfolded on a chair with a noose around this neck. Bilal had stabbed and killed her 18-year-old son, Abdullah, and the Iranian court had sentenced Bilal to death.
Abdullah’s father had the power under Iranian law to overturn the death penalty, and he had ceded that power to his wife. “You have the final say,” he had told her. Because she had “suffered too much”, he had said, “we’ll do as you say.”
The blindfolded Bilal wept and beseeched Samareh, “Forgive me, Aunt Maryam. Show your mercy.”
“Did you have mercy on us?”, she demanded. “Did you show mercy to my son? You have taken happiness away from us. Why should I have mercy toward you?”
Her sense of loss and of anger against Bilal had been deepened by the additional death of her other son Amir a few years ago. Eleven-year-old Amir was riding a bicycle when he was hit by a motorcycle and died. One of the two boys on the motorcycle was Bilal.
Now as she stood in front of her son’s killer, Samareh told the executioner she wanted him to die. And yet, when the pivotal moment came, Samareh stepped on a chair, slapped Bilal, and screamed, “I forgive him.”
She asked her husband to join her in removing the noose from Bilal’s neck. Then she was hugged by Bilal’s mother and all three of them—the two mothers and Bilal—broke into tears. Some observers in the crowd applauded, while others were quiet in shock.
Bilal may have received a reprieve on his death sentence, but he had to return to prison to serve out the rest of his sentence. Upon his release, he moved away from Nour with his family to start a new life.
Samareh later reflected on what she wanted the world to learn from her experience. “Losing a child is like losing a part of your body...I felt like a moving dead body...[But] after the pardon, I started to experience a unique peace within myself...I feel that vengeance has left my heart... Forgiving brings abundance. It strengthens the bonds of love...no punishment, death, war or rage can give the relief that forgiveness gives...forgiving is such a beautiful thing.”
We cannot sit a million miles away watching events unfold and claim to know what someone should do when they believe they have been wronged, and seriously wronged. The answer will lie somewhere along the spectrum from fully forgiving to waging a war. But while there is no one fixed outer path that is always right in such situations, there is in fact one right inner path. That path, I offer, is to preserve your sense of humanity by keeping your heart pure and never losing your compassion.