The Passion of Compassion

So just a little prelude to this post.  This is an attempt at a little short story.  I hesitate to call it that, because in many ways it is a small bit that was inspired by the writing of one of my followers Hariod Brawn who definitely has an amazing skill at writing.  It is a response to his post called the Ambit of Ambition.  I was about to write a comment about it, and then decided maybe I could be a little more creative in my response and write my comment in the form of a similar story.  His excellent piece made me think about how we define ambition and success in our lives.  As a society these words often refer to economic gain or fame based on notoriety.  But by their definition they don’t need to be.  Can we not measure our success differently?  Can we have ambition for compassion or other values that bring goodness to the world?  With those questions I will say no more and allow you to contemplate an alternate universe. 🙂  Thank you for taking the time to read.

Terry was certain he didn’t deserve it, but even as he touched the glossy cover of Fortune 500 magazine he turned his gaze inward and gave a slight smile.  Gratitude washed over him and for a few moments he decided to let the ebbing tide take him away.  Perhaps it’s no crime to be proud of oneself, as long as you remember just how blessed you actually are.  His wife of 20 years now, sat beside him, a beaming smile that darkness could never hold dominion over and nods reassuringly.  With the timidity of child who approaches a horse, sugar cube in hand, he leafs through the pages until he sees his picture and the article written in his honor.  While he had always striven for more, to have made this magazine was more success than one could ask for.  Tears welled up a little as the 5-page article gave homage to a life so full, that accolades never seemed necessary.

He barely got past the first paragraph talking about how he had a food drive for the local food bank while he was in middle school, when he paused and remembered the very first experience that had motivated him to be the man he was today.  He was 6 years old and was walking back with his mother after a trip to the laundromat.  He remembered how it felt like an eternity that day doing laundry, especially since he become very hungry.  Mustering the full crankiness, a 6-year-old can offer when his stomach is growling, he insisted on the way home that she get him a soft pretzel from the stand near the laundromat, even though it was only a 10 minute walk him.  Mom had told him that she would make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when she got home, but the smell from the stand had been wafting in to the laundromat for some time.  While he generally loved the smell of clothes coming out the drier, his hunger mixed with the fact that somebody had spilled a whole lot of laundry detergent near them made him eager to follow that scent coming from the outdoors.  He remembered how palpable the smell was as if he was being led by the nose.  He knew his parents couldn’t treat him often, but he really wanted that pretzel.

He had easily defeated his mother with a series of quality pouts and big hugs and a look upwards at mommy with eyes that would make a puppy knew it had been out-cuted.  Then as he walked away and held the warm chewy pretzel in his hands he heard the shaking of a paper cup and the clinking of change. He looked up and saw a face that just caught him.  To this day he could bring to mind details about that face that he could not, on a whim, recall about others he had known better and for longer.  There was the bushy beard.  Grey had taken over the area of the chin and seemed to extend outwards in ripples of diminishing intensity to the rest of the hairy fac.  His skin was the color of milk chocolate, but had the tough but yielding look of old leather that made him think of his mother’s handbag.  He looked at other people with a smile and wishing people a pleasant day.  There was a sincerity that he had not seen in many others save for his own parents.  Terry stopped in his tracks and watched the man.  Forced to stop too, his mother, after already losing one battle, asked him what was wrong.  Her voice had the impatience that only a mother, carrying a full laundry bag and still many chores left in the day, deserves.  He had wanted to know what that man was doing and why was he standing there.  His mother explained that he was homeless and was asking for money from other people so he could buy food and beverage as he was likely thirsty and hungry.  It was spring, but the day was dreary and cool, and the man was wearing a lot of clothes, but most of them fraying and with holes or rips here or there.  Even on his parents satisfactory but tight budget he knew clothes would normally be replaced before such a state of disrepair.  He remembered the man suddenly looked at him with a wide smile and he looked back into those eyes.  There was a brightness to them that just made your day better to have them look at you, and all around his eyes were countless lines from years of hard living.  He looked older than any man he had ever seen at the time, even though he suspected that this man wasn’t as old as his Grandpa Greg or Grandpa Paul.  And in some ways those lines framing the eyes, made those bright eyes all the sadder, because Terry couldn’t understand how the world could be so cruel in the face of kindness.  As the warmth of the pretzel radiated outward from his hand, he could suddenly feel his hunger fade.

He held out his hand and said “Hi, my name is Terry, would you like this pretzel?”

His mom stood with jaw slowly giving way to gravity.

The man introduced himself, and told Terry his name was Jim and thanked him heartily for his gift as he was quite hungry.  Terry gave him a solid 6-year-old handshake, Jim’s fingertips cold as ice, while the other hands exchanged the pretzel.  Jim had turned to his mother and said “You have a fine boy there.”

His mom simply said “Thank you.  Yes I do.”  A confirmation of something she needed no other person to tell her was true, though you could still tell she was glad to hear it. Terry felt much more warmth now than the hot pretzel in his hand provided, and the joy at making that man happy was a feeling he never felt before.  It’s like he realized that not all joy was the same, and that there is a joy out there that is more fulfilling than unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.  When he got home he had a wonderful peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and the biggest glass of chocolate milk his mother had ever given him.

As Terry continued to read the article about him, it recounted many of the sources for his nomination.  It was hard to believe that 500 people had written personal testimonies to his kindness, his generosity, his friendship, and his compassion.  He joked to himself that he had it is easy.  When you are good with your hands, it’s much easier to lend one.  It was his best friends and business partners who had done the legwork to find all these people to write letters.  He felt an extreme sense of gratitude for having such friends.  It was around games of Dungeons & Dragons that they came up with the idea to start a carpentry business.  Which then grew into a business that flipped houses.  After the first year they had enough money to hire a few employees, and this allowed his friend Jonathan to do less carpentry and work more on the business end of things.  According to the article his employees had put together a letter of testimony as well.  As the company took a little less time, he started to do pro bono work with Habitat for Humanity, and for people in his neighborhood.  When he met his wife at age 32, his company had grown to where he had 10 full time workers and this allowed Terry to pull back a little so he could start a family.  He wished his daughter could have been here right now to share this moment with him, but she was away at college for architecture.  She shared his passion for building and had even a keener eye for design and making things look beautiful. Apparently she had also written a letter talking about what an attentive and hardworking father he was.

The article couldn’t name everybody, but there was a letter from a former science teacher who was nearly fired for being a gay.  A plea perhaps he was only able to win at a schoolboard meeting because of the goodwill his company had in this small and fairly conservative town.   There was testimony from the director of the local Vo-Tech where he taught classes, and took many of the students on to gain experience helping him with projects.  Some of those students also wrote letters of support.

After a while it had become too much for him to read anymore, and too indulgent to wonder who all might have taken the time and effort to support him.  Maybe he was too humble, but he also knew that none of his success was his alone.  Where would he be without the support and love of his parents?  It was their kind and generous nature that drove his own ambitions.  How could he have had the successful business he had without the loyalty and trustworthiness of his friends?  Ones that shared a similar vision for life, and whose enthusiasm and work ethic were matched by extreme talent for business and carpentry.  And all these people he had helped to over the year had come at the expense of time he couldn’t spend with others.  His wife and daughter had been so patient and understanding to know what drove him, and while they had never once expressed any wish to have him around more, he knew that at times they must have missed him.  Any one of the 500 people, he was sure, gave as much to him as he did to them. He turned to his wife and said “I must get a list of the people who wrote in, so I can write them back and thank them.”

She looked at him with eyes that knew him so well and just laughed.  “All in good time my darling.  Tonight you are resting on your laurels and I have made reservations.  Now good put on something nice.  You get an evening that’s just about you.”

Resigned, he got up and walked towards his room and tried to push his uneasiness to the back of his mind.  He stopped and started to turn sure he would have a good argument in all this, but his wife had followed him, expecting such ridiculous tactics and said “Go on!” and gave him a playful push on the back into their room.

He was resolute that he’d pay for dinner.

41 thoughts on “The Passion of Compassion

  1. Great short story, Swarn, and heart warming. I loved your use of metaphors and similes, but your comment I quote below was what really resonated with me:

    “As a society these words often refer to economic gain or fame based on notoriety. But by their definition they don’t need to be. Can we not measure our success differently? Can we have ambition for compassion or other values that bring goodness to the world?”

    I was reminded of an eloquent speech Robert Kennedy gave in 1968 at the University of Kansas. Here’s an excerpt:

    “”Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.

    It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

    I absolutely agree with you that Hariod has amazing writing skills. I’m not sure why his posts haven’t been showing up in my reader, as I’m following him, but I’m glad you brought his post “Ambit of Ambition” to our attention. You might want to think about linking it in your OP.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you Victoria for reading! I actually thought I did link Hariod’s piece, but apparently I did not…so many people have now already missed out on possibly reading his piece. How sad. 😦 It’s in there now.

      That is a great quote by RFK. I completely agree with what he said. The way we measure achievement, seems counter to the things that matter most. I thought it would be funny to imagine Fortunate 500 as something that would be very different in a kind of world where we measured success according based on compassion over material wealth.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This piece resonates, for sure. I wonder if it’s based on your own life, somehow? Love this, “When you are good with your hands, it’s much easier to lend one.”

    And of course I am a huge fan of Hariod whose writing skills are peerless.

    I believe ambition and success are, sadly, culturally defined, and I’ll say that my hope is that this can and will change. But it’s a big hairy machine out there running the show. Still, there are and will remain incidents such as you describe that offer us models to live by. A major problem, as I see it, is that many people’s senses are dulled from an early age and they might not even reason out the whys, once into adulthood. Too many distractions, obligations, muddled priorities. Work to live becomes live to work. A lifetime of noise pollution, television hypnosis, systemic institutional conditioning and peer conditioning dull a naturally inquisitive mind. Overwhelm sets in, and day to day is what can be managed, always with an eye on tomorrow, later, someday, never, but rarely on the moment. In the Now. For it is in this Now that we discover attunement, at-one-ment, alternatively spelled ‘atonement’ 😉

    In my experience, values can be inculcated. Compassion arises from a mixture of innate or cultivated sensitivities and life experience. And if ‘we’ are not connected to our senses, how can ‘we’ attune them to something as nebulous as compassion? Life does instruct, and it does that superbly. For amidst the bliss, our big game is rained out, we are beaten in the spelling bee, pets die, people walk in and out of our lives, we lose our job or our home and perhaps even we, ourselves become incapacated, temporarily or permanently. Yet if we view adversity as a curse to an otherwise idyllic existence, if we perceive ourselves as the perpetual victim of folly, we fail to benefit and learn from implied messages that drill our humanity back into our center where it belongs. But hey, it’s hard work waking up to existential realities without imploding or blaming someone or anything and, having walked through considerable fire in my own life, I do possess deep compassion for those who dare to try.

    I am reminded of Rumi at this moment, then I’ll leave you to other commenters with my gratitude for your presence in the world. Aloha, Swarn ❤

    Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
    and rightdoing there is a field.
    I’ll meet you there.
    When the soul lies down in that grass
    the world is too full to talk about.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you Bela for reading and your thoughtful comment.

      Well the only part of this really based on me is that I could barely stand to make it through reading about such an article about myself, and so as a result of that I could never write this story if all of this were true about me. Also, I am most certainly not good with my hands…unless sensual caresses count. lol I do try and live in the moment and as a result consider myself a voluptuary. I hope Hariod reads this comment because I think the use of that word would please him. 🙂 I am not saying I haven’t grown into a more empathic person, but growing up with an alcoholic father, there was a lot of just “survival” in me and I tend to just escape my depression by being the class clown and hanging out with friends. I was fortunate to have a really good group of them. But when you start to have successes, you tend to start thinking you deserve them because of the difficult childhood you had. It’s foolish to think such things of course, so many have had hard or harder childhoods, but more importantly life gets to be a bit vapid when it becomes all about you.

      I agree with you that we live in a world that frequently distracts us from what’s most important. One of the interesting things I learned when I was young and traveled to India with my family is that poorer people seemed on average happier and kinder than those who were upper middle class or higher. The fact that there was little ability to gain significant material wealth made them focus more on community, family, and being generous hosts and hostesses. While certainly there is a certain based level of needs that must be met to achieve happiness, it is clear that there isn’t a strong correlation between the two.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Haha, sensual caresses DO count, take it from a woman! What i hear most often from bisexual female friends is that they prefer women because women TOUCH. Oh, but this is for another discussion. 😉 A voluptuary, eh? Hariod works those language muscles, I’ll tell ya!

        I totally get you on ‘survival mode.’ What I find most interesting is that you felt deserving of successes *because* of your past. I went the very opposite way, feeling as though I was worthless for many years. The difference between yours and my response to survival mode was also likely affected by gender and generation. Also my dad’s alcoholism brought violence and sexual predation along for the ride.

        I grew up with a bunch of spoiled Hollywood brats. Many became uber-famous. So while I could have courted fame and fortune, I was disinclined to go that route. Saw too many drug-induced freakouts, went to one too many rockstar parties. One of my brothers did go that way, addicted to crack and driving a Rolls Silver Shadow working for a big rock band. Died at 50. That whole scene scared the crap out of me. I had far more affinity to the common person, even then. I graduated high school and almost immediately moved to the woods of Maine. When later we moved to Hawaii, we were on Moloka’i. To me, these were Real People. This has never changed. People with money are always concerned about money. Some I’ve known even spend big money on Buddhist retreats and dana, and talk the talk. But in the end, all they appear to care about is driving a stake into anybody who threatens their privilege. The ‘real’ people we have lived amongst have their priorities in order: family, friends, laughter, sharing. They truly live Aloha and have much to teach by example for those who wish to learn. Aloha to you on this bright day, Swarn.

        Liked by 4 people

  3. “To this day he could bring to mind details about that face that he could not, on a whim, recall about others he had known better and for longer.” – Kudos for the acuity, Swarn. I suspect we each of us have moments from the past, perhaps even at first seemingly insignificant, likely innocuous moments at that, which somehow become eidetic in memory, as their meaning to us continues to unfold throughout life. Some of it may be confabulation, I know, but the mind foretells the later significance of the first recorded event and firmly establishes the image as a sort of visual codex: this is significant; hold to it; it will stand you in good stead – that sort of thing. I quite often recall a few words that someone said to me, or a look that was given, and which impacted only lightly at the time, yet which have found a deepening resonance over the years. We all leave our mark upon the world in some manner, often in ways we are oblivious to.

    Anyway, my first response to your delightful piece was that I haven’t done enough in life. I haven’t been charitable enough, and I haven’t always helped as much as I could have. I don’t feel guilty or disgraced by the fact, because there’s no point in arguing with the truth – I could have done more. I think the only exception is in respect to the two dogs I was privileged to live with. Humans have a lot more needs, and I could have met more of them.

    The other thing that touched me was the food-giving element of the story. I’m a real softie when it comes to that, and have often welled-up viewing video of poor people in South-East Asia, or elsewhere, giving alms to mendicants. One of the greatly satisfying things in my life has been preparing Dana (gift) meals for Buddhist recluses in a monastery. It always felt such a rewarding experience for myself – my own cupidity, perhaps? – and though there were never any thoughts as regards the accumulation of merit to enjoy in some putative, karmically induced afterlife (I was never interested in religious cosmology), it did feel like the receiving of a gift – actually, far better.

    Bela’s gone brilliantly into the philosophical aspects of your piece, and there’s no point in me adding anything of lesser value, which is all I could do. I shall close in thanking you for the beautifully crafted imagery, and also for the hyperlink and unjustified, yet very gracious and generous words about my own efforts.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you Hariod. My goal wasn’t to make anybody feel like they hadn’t done enough… None of us have nor can in a world with so many problems. Not to say we should just throw up our hands either, but I think that it’s a hallmark of many who do good works for people that they always feel like there is more to do.

      As I mentioned to me before my only goal was to suppose what a world might be like where ambition and success were driven by values of kindness over values of consumption. A lot of western society is very individualistic and doesn’t prioritize being kind. Even in education. Especially one that over time de-emphasizes the arts and humanities, which I think is something that in general promotes togetherness even in the face of disagreement.

      Thank you for your kind words about the story. And like the character in my story there is perhaps a bit too much humility in you. I suspect you’re a humble realist, which is the worst kind of person to give compliments too. lol You are intensely bright and enjoyable to have a conversation with…I am not sure if you deserve praise from everyone, but I can definitely say you deserve praise from me. So you’re stuck with it. lol

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes Hariod is far too humble at times, a shining light indeed, and is without doubt one of the most thoughtful, kind and sarcastic people I have ever met. Hahahahaha.

        So good to see more of that inspiration we spoke of spreading Swarn, and I enjoyed this piece a great deal. Just a little more kindness would change the world, and I mean using it both towards others and oneself. Always a pleasure to pop over and peruse this cloak unfurled. *beams*

        – esme waving from upon the Cloud

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Thank you Esme!

          *says in his best dracula voice*

          You are always welcome to the cloak unfurled…just don’t be surprised when the cloak becomes furled with you inside. Mwuhahahaha!

          *looks up at the cloud sharpening his canines*

          Liked by 1 person

  4. A lovely and well written piece, Swarn. I like the idea you’ve made plain, which is that success in whatever form is one part willingness on our part, joined to countless contributions of others. It is so crazy to me sometimes when we humans take credit for our successes as if we “did it all on our own”, when in truth we are all so deeply connected such is really impossible. The key is following that impulse of our own heart I think, as it will take us far, and bring us into contact with those who we can help, and who can help us. When we see it this way, success is easy in a sense, for it simply stepping into relatedness, and sharing our lives with one another in meaningful ways…

    I was reminded in Hariod’s comment about the speech George Saunders gave once– maybe a commencement speech to Syracuse graduates– when he said is greatest regret was so many missed moments of kindness. We all sense I think, if we are honest, what Hariod noted in his reply– we have let moments of potential kindness pass by unattended. I like the picture you have created of a world rooted in kindness, and wish to continue turning my little wheel of participation.


    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for reading and for your kind and thoughtful words. I agree that this notion of individual success and achievement is for want of a better word crazy. Biographies are often narrated in a way that highlights individual achievements, and minimizes the impact of those around them, the breaks they got, and/or the privileges they enjoyed. I mean I think at the heart we want to be inspired as individuals and so I can see the appeal. But as we discussed before when you have humility and gratitude to pause and look around to what made your journey possible, you will find that life is a mixture of individual drive and the help of others. This always needs to be acknowledged.

      Liked by 4 people

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