In a video course about mindfulness meditation that I’ve been watching, there is a segment that discusses the importance of compassion, even and especially toward those for whom we feel antipathy, aversion, and even enmity. The simple practice is suggested of saying to oneself, when inconvenienced or annoyed by someone: “Just like me.”
That lady in front of me in the checkout line, fumbling with her coupons and holding everyone up?
That guy who cuts me off on the highway and almost causes an accident?
That coworker who snaps in annoyance at my well-meant advice?
Just like me.
I also have been clumsy, distracted, slow, stupid, and thoughtless. I also have made people angry and frustrated with me. I also have been in need of forgiveness and understanding.
This is not so hard to apply in ordinary situations like the ones mentioned above. If I put my mind to it (that’s the hard part), I should be able to calm down, realize that angry reactions don’t help, and reduce my animosity. When I’m in a fairly balanced place myself, I can usually manage this.
But what about the people who go beyond being merely annoying to threaten, disturb, and actively harm us and our world? Can we truly say of them that we are the same under the skin? And wouldn’t that mean that we are all perpetrators of doom and destruction, all bearers of evil impulses and forces? What could be more depressing?
What could be more true?
I had a “Just like me” moment after 9/11. I lived 25 miles from Manhattan at the time and was in great shock following the event, as was everyone else around me.
Part of what shocked me so deeply was that I realized that the same anger that caused such incredible harm and destruction lived also in me. I was also capable of such rage, such destructiveness. If I didn’t live it out by flying an airplane into a building, it was not a testament to my superior moral qualities, but only to my different life circumstances and opportunities.
I’m still wrestling with this realization, still dealing with the buried anger that must be addressed lest I blow something up — not a building, but relationships, human connections. My own potential future. I have made some progress, mindful of the guiding help of the divine presence who came to earth to be with us, to be “just like us.” In this encounter I have found great joy, on the other side of great suffering. And that gives me hope, and a will to continue.
In the book Dracula, or the Un-dead, which I read recently, I was struck by a passage in which a young woman, Mina Harker, turns her thoughts to the vampire who has bitten her, exposing her to the danger of becoming un-dead herself. She begs her male companions to kill her if necessary rather than allow her to succumb to that horrible fate, and then reflects that her attacker must once also have been a human being like her. Who will set him free, will restore his humanity and release him from his terrible suffering, his death-in-life?
For me, Mina’s radical compassion turned what was otherwise a rather silly exercise in Gothic melodrama into something much more interesting, and relevant. If Mina can conceive that even her worst enemy, the embodiment of evil — even Dracula! — is, or could be, or once was a human being, in need of understanding and forgiveness, bearing the potential for transformation, can I do the same? What would happen if I looked for that common humanity, that likeness, in even the most unlikely places?
In the new year, when as always our hopes for a better future will engage in a deadly struggle against our fears of instability and change, I would like to try to be mindful of this, and see where it takes me.
Just like me. Could it be true? Who am I, who are you? And what could we become, together?