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An old family story later helped me understand the difference between empathy and compassion.
One afternoon, while on an errand with an adult from our household, I observed some children pointing and laughing at a girl. She ignored them, as she continued to limp along with one eye shut. She lived not too far from us and I had seen her before, sometimes in a school uniform.
I was 6 or perhaps 7 years old. I had not been allowed to play with the taunting children, but they seemed to have a lot of fun. The next time the girl came by, I mimicked their behavior. Outraged, my mother ordered me to go upstairs. How could I be so cruel? she asked.
Imagine myself, she said, in that girl’s place.
Then, she told me a story, which I named “The General’s Daughter.” According to my mom, one of my paternal ancestors was a general in charge of our city. He had lived across the street from the Main Square, about a block from our house at the time.
One day, a pauper asked the general’s daughter to pour him a cup of water. She laughed at his audacity and sent him instead to the servants. The next day, the pauper returned and offered her a flower. Again, she laughed as she took and smelled it. She disappeared that very night.
They looked everywhere but could not find her. A decade later, the general and a group of his officers were riding in an undeveloped area of our town. There, in the woods and almost in plain sight, they found his daughter, who had been living with the pauper and their six children.
I was too young to ask my mother what happened to the protagonists. Much later, when I asked, my father said that it was a legend.
This past January, a friend invited me to a gathering of women, coincidentally near the first anniversary of Haiti’s major earthquake. We meditated, reaching through the ages to connect with each other. I marveled at the ancient traditions of feminine wisdom that seemed to bind our diverse, albeit mostly Caucasian, group.
I enjoyed the harmony we created with drums, tambourines and other instruments, free to find our own space and yet improvise together. Our sisterly greetings and the poignant family remembrances and expressions of mutual support led me to share with the group my grief in the national context of the earthquake’s anniversary.
The women applauded. A participant spontaneously played her flute. At that moment I saw us all as women who shared, understood and supported each other. I wanted to keep that feeling, until . . .
Someone broke the mood. Empathy was dangerous, she said. It drags people at higher levels of consciousness into the suffering of others who are at lower levels. But through “compassion,” she said, one can teach people to fish rather than feed them, etc.
Her words reminded me of the "compassion” that led to slavery and colonialism in order to “save souls” and “civilize” the natives. It’s the same “compassion” that now allows international organizations and charities and their highly paid staff members to do so little for the truly needy in Haiti, while collecting millions in their name. They reinforce Haiti’s dependence and weaken its institutions.
My mother’s story was not about compassion or pity. She had made me see myself in the girl’s place and learn to respect her as an equal.
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