People need to have more compassion

I have had the privilege to be cast into this year’s theatre production of “The Laramie Project.” It is a collection of interviews conducted with the citizens of Laramie, Wyo. where the murder of Matthew Shepard occurred in 1998. It is a theatrical reporting of what the town experienced during the aftermath of the crime. There is one point when the doctor that operated on Matthew Shepard was also caring for one of Shepard’s attackers, who was injured in a separate confrontation. He felt deeply sad, not only for Matthew, but for the injured attacker, as well. He saw them both as kids, regardless of who did what to whom. He saw them as kids in pain that he had nursed.

The significance of this hit me last night while reading the script, and again this morning in an unusual scenario. This morning, in my bathroom, I found a large black insect on the floor lying on its back. It was still moving, so I knew it was alive. Our normal tendency when encountering unpleasant looking insects is to kill them or run away screaming like a victim in “Scream.”

It was my bathroom, so there was no way in hell that insect was gonna stay while I politely left. So it was a choice of life or death. It seemed like the insect knew this, as it began squirming urgently as I used a Styrofoam cup to pick it up. And that’s when I noticed that it only had one leg. I have no idea how this occurred, but that is why it couldn’t run away. I held it in front of my face and just watched it thrash the best it could, and if it had a voice I’m sure it would’ve been screaming.

My first idea was to put it out of its misery, like ranchers would a lame horse. Then for some reason, I took the cup to the faucet and slowly poured water into the cup. The insect appeared to be drinking the water. It seemed like it wasn’t really ready to die. So I went out onto my porch and poured the insect and the water out onto the grass, and walked away. I just kept thinking about the doctor’s feelings in Laramie, and how I felt watching the insect squirm for its life. And was the same feeling: compassion.

And how fitting it is that all of this comes up on Sept. 11. This day was a day when the world needed compassion possibly more than any time since WWII. It may sound hokey to write about compassion on the anniversary of our attack, but hey, I didn’t plan that. This was orchestrated by higher forces than me. Anyhow, I feel that we as a culture do not exercise enough compassion in our daily lives apart from periods of extreme violence. Even Matthew Shepard’s attack can be seen as a convenient time to deal with people compassionately; it was an unjust and brutal murder that gave a heavy blow to our sense of openness and tolerance. Of course we cared about that. But what I am referring to is the smaller events that anger us and cause some sort of division between each other.

We can feel sorrow for the starving children in Africa, but we still curse out the guy that cuts us off in traffic. We can send our condolences to widows, yet hardly look twice at the rundown raccoon on the side of the road. We join hands when our twin towers are taken down, but when that smelly old hobo shuffles up to us at the corner and asks for change, we offer a fake smile and ignore him. What about these times? What about when we’re betrayed by our friends, or cheated on by our fiancés, or laughed at by strangers when we trip down the stairs, or are hated by someone at work without even a clue as to why? What about when our instructors treat us like numbers or our students treat us like dictators? What about being ignored when all we want to do is say we’re sorry? These are the moments that really define our level of compassion. That guy that cut us off may have been going to see his wife in labor at the hospital. That raccoon may have been looking for food for its children. That homeless man may have been looking for more than a quarter; maybe he just wanted a genuine smile … to know that someone acknowledges that he exists.

Everyone has a story, but few are interested in listening. We feel this coldness burning everyday as we pass each other on campus. I think it’s about time things warmed up.