“We live very close together. So, our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” H.H. The XIVth Dalai Lama
I think it’s not an easy idea to define oneself in relation to others. Before the Enlightenment, humans defined themselves in relation to God. After the Enlightenment, humans began defining themselves in relation to themselves and, thusly, began the fascinating rise of individualism. Don’t get me wrong. I grew up in the West, and I am highly influenced by individualism. I like it. Defining myself in relation to the idea of a collective or group feels quite foreign to me even as a Jew. I would probably get into trouble in that sort of environment as I have a tendency, as a contrarian, to do the opposite of what is asked of me in the midst of group activities. Public school in Texas was hell.
I don’t think that this is what the Dalai Lama is communicating. In fact, I experienced exactly what he is sharing here last night.
I am in grad school, and I missed classes last week due to an anaphylactic reaction that caused all sorts of delightful drama. Falling behind in any kind of medical school is nightmarish, and I have been studying for hours daily since last week in what feels like a feeble attempt to catch up because six tests are on the menu this week. It’s exhausting, and I go to sleep nightly dreaming of anatomy and wake up dreaming of anatomy….“The innervation of the coracobrachialis is…the axillary nerve runs through the deltoids…The supraspinatus stabilizes the head of the humerus…”
In the midst of all this fun we had a typical Midwestern summer thunderstorm complete with hail and straight line winds. Trees were downed. Property was destroyed. Internet was lost. I thought we were lucky to have experienced almost none of this until I was leaving the house very early yesterday morning and saw, upon gazing in my rearview mirror, what looked like half my tree lying in the front yard.
How did I not see that when I went outside, you ask? I lack a good explanation. I was lost in thought, or I blame the prednisone. Clearly, I was not mindful or present or anything else that I claim to practice. In any case, that massive limb came down in the night and was partially lying in my neighbor’s yard, and I couldn’t take care of it at that moment. I was already taking six tests in my head and spectacularly failing them all at once. Test anxiety was hunting me like the wraiths from Lord of the Rings.
I took two tests yesterday and returned home at 9 PM. I was exhausted. Oh yeah, half my tree. Lying in my yard. Only someone had chopped it up, and it was now entirely in my yard. When I went inside, my daughters bombarded me with the tale of The Tree Limb Gone Wrong. My neighbors had been less than kind about that limb, and three of my daughters went outside to try to move it entirely into our yard. They ended up sawing it into pieces while one of the neighbors stood outside passively looking on. It was no one’s fault that a storm caused a branch to fall. It was no one’s fault that I couldn’t move it exactly when they wanted it moved. Passive aggressively putting pressure on my daughters to do it when I’m not there because they don’t want to wait until the evening?
What is the neighborly thing to do?
There is a lot I could say about the situation, but, in the end, I think that there is something more important that my daughters learned and I was reminded of. This behavior is standard for most people. The majority of people are not concerned with their neighbors or anyone near them, and most people match energies with others. In other words, if someone is nice to them, then they might return a casual nicety. If someone is unkind or inconsiderate, then they will return the same energy with a negative attitude and write that person off. This is standard human behavior.
What I told my daughters last night (and not in that pedantic sort of way) was that how they behave in life or towards us should have no impact on how we choose to show up in our small sphere of influence or in our lives. If they choose not to be neighborly, then perhaps they are the impoverished ones in the scenarios. We can feel frustrated by interacting with that kind of energy because it’s negative, but how we show up in the world is still entirely our choice (and, yes, that sort of sucks). That is what the Dalai Lama is saying. Jesus said it, too. He illustrated it in the extreme with the story of the Good Samaritan. He also said, “Love your neighbor.” Confucius said, “Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors.”
The idea of treating others in line with how you want to be treated, or don’t doing to others what you would not want done to you, is ancient. The ancient Zoroastrian text, the Shast-na-shayast from 600 BC says, “Whatever is disagreeable to yourself, do not do unto to others.” The ancient Hindu text, the Hitopadesa, written c. 3200 BC, says, “One should always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated.” According to the Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 45, the Muslim Book of Virtue, “None of you has faith until he loves for his brother or his neighbor what he loves for himself.” This is a universal concept. Within this concept then is the idea that one does not return unkindness for unkindness. We do not match energies with another person who is aiming something negative or unkind toward us because we ourselves would not want someone to do that to us. When we have a “selfish moment”, and we will, what would we want?
When I’m thoughtless, I hope for forgiveness and compassion. I hope that someone might believe the best about me. If that’s what I want, then that’s what I need to offer to my neighbors. The question arising then is: Who is my neighbor? Whoever is standing next to you at any given moment.
Should their behavior dictate how I show up in the world or the kind of person I choose to be? Well, no.
Is that hard? Yes. I am in no way describing an easy path, but there is such a deficiency of kindness in our world today. Nothing will change if I don’t change. Nothing will improve if I don’t set about to improve myself and my responses. Goodness will not grow if I don’t make compassion a priority. Protests don’t change the world. Compassion does. This, too, seems to be a universal concept.
“Genuine human friendship is on the basis of human affection, irrespective
of your position. Therefore, the more you show concern about the welfare
and rights of others, the more you are a genuine friend. The more you remain
open and sincere, then ultimately more benefits will come to you. If you forget
or do not bother about others, then eventually you will lose your own benefit.” H.H. The XIVth Dalai Lama
“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Matthew 14
“Love of all creatures is also love of God, for whoever loves the One (God) loves all the works that He has made. When one loves God, it is impossible not to love His creatures. The opposite is also true. If one hates the creatures, it is impossible to love God Who created them.” Maharal of Prague, Nesivos Olam, Ahavas haRe’i, 1
“What sort of religion can it be without compassion? You need to show compassion to all living beings. Compassion is the root of all religious faiths.” Basavanna, Vacana 247
“Verily, God is compassionate and is fond of compassion, and He gives to the compassionate what He does not give to harsh.” The Prophet Muhammad