As long as a society protects…the vulnerable among them, [it] can be expected to prosper and not decline. --The Buddha
My 95 year old friend in South Africa was telling me about the bird lice infestation of her tiny apartment, and the bites and rashes she was suffering all over her face and chest. She’d found half a bird’s nest behind her wardrobe, and while trying to move the wardrobe, it fell apart because termites had eaten through it. Too afraid to sleep on her infested bed, she asked the manager of her old-age-home complex if she could sleep in one of the vacant flats while her place was being fumigated; the person said no. So she ended up sleeping, for a few nights, in a chair out in a cold corridor leading to her flat.
When I was speaking to her, she was sitting in the armchair in the midst of her devastated home: her clothes lying outside near her front door, and her other possessions strewn around her. She said to me in an exhausted voice: “I wish I could die”. This feisty intelligent woman wanted to report the incident to the local newspaper, but was also afraid to make a fuss because she could be kicked out of her home.
This heartbreaking struggle of the elderly to keep a home, survive, be seen and respected is occurring in California too. Here seniors have to choose between paying for rent, for medical expenses, or eating. Landlords force out lower-rent-paying seniors to get in higher paying renters, which unfortunately makes seniors destitute. What does the ill treatment of our most vulnerable populations: the elderly, the young, and ill within our society say about us?
Then this week the White House proposed an almost 20% tax cut for corporations. Budget proposals have already been announced to cut social service programs like “Meals on Wheels”, children’s school lunches, and women’s health services. Not to mention the devastating budget cut to the Environmental Protection Agency. This means money will be given back to businesses, and taken away from the neediest populations.
We are interdependent beings who live on one planet. The fate of one affects us all. If you suffer, I suffer. If the planet is ill, I’m ill.
Everything we do and, for that matter, all we buy is so we can be happy. Contrary to common belief, to become truly happy, we should think of others. This is counter intuitive but here’s how it works.
All beings want to be happy. No one wants to suffer and yet we all do.
When we think only of ourselves, we become unhappy. This doesn’t mean we should never think of ourselves, or always prioritize others needs over our own. Our responsibility is also to take care of our survival. But if we focus only on always fulfilling our own desires and wants over the needs of others, then we inadvertently increase our suffering.
Desire breeds more desire. We know how quickly the glow fades after a purchase of a new car, or handbag or after a delicious meal or fancy holiday. The happiness we gain from possessions and externally is by nature temporary: company shareholders always wanting bigger profits, children wanting more toys and games, parents wanting the latest gadgets and fashions and on it goes. When our desire for more, bigger and better overruns our willingness to share, aid and benefit the less fortunate, then we grow increasingly unhappy.
Our ego and its wishes become primary when we cherish ourselves. This mindset makes us greedy, competitive, possessive, and aggressive in our struggle to have the most, and remain the best. To maintain position, possessions and power, we lie, cheat, steal and so on. This drive increases our misery because we are constantly worried and agitated about losing what we have. Ironically, we set out trying to achieve whatever it is we think will make us happy, and inadvertently increase our suffering.
On the other hand, our sense of well-being, peace and joy increases when we help others. Reflect back on the times when you were most satisfied, pleased and happy. Most often it is when we did something nice for someone, or lifted up another person. Notice your feelings the next time you allow someone to go ahead of you in a queue, or you help a coworker on a project, or you cook a meal for your sick neighbor, or you give someone the benefit of the doubt. These concessions don’t diminish us. They reveal our innate compassion.
As social animals, compassion is in our nature. When our mind and heart expands, we naturally open up, connect and stretch beyond our comfort zone. We recognize the pain and feelings of our fellow beings because it is our shared human experience. At the end of the day, we are all struggling to rise above the pain of living in a world that is unsettling and challenging.
If we tap into our deepest self, we’ll reconnect with our natural empathy, kindness and compassion. After all, our shared experience is both pain and joy. Our willingness to honour this side of our nature will not only make a difference in someone’s life but will also bring us joy.
May your compassion bring you lasting peace and happiness.