May 13, 2013

What the Woman Who Helped Bury the Boston Bomber Can Teach Us.

It’s difficult to live from this place, to have an open heart and to recognize that the pain you are feeling was caused by the pain someone else felt.

This week NPR reported a story about Martha Mullen, the Virginia woman who helped get the body of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev buried. Tsarnaev’s body was taken in by a funeral home in Massachusetts, but cemeteries there and in other states refused to bury it—none wanted to house the former terrorist’s remains.

Mullen was at Starbucks when she heard the story on the radio about the trouble people were having finding a place for Tsarnaev’s body. She said her first thought was “Jesus said love your enemies.” Then she thought “Someone ought to do something about this–and I am someone.

So she did. She sent emails to several faith organizations looking for help. The Islamic Funeral Services of Virginia responded to her and arranged for a funeral plot at a cemetery in Virginia.

This story worked its way into my heart this week. There are a lot of factors to discuss—like the moral and ethical issues of how to dispose of the bodies of so-called evil people, about what they “deserve” or don’t and about what’s in the best interests of victims and their families.

Instead of engaging in all of that, when I heard this story my heart simply softened. What I loved was that this one woman heard what everyone else heard and instead of joining the masses in condemning the enemy, she did what we should all do—she loved him instead.

This isn’t a defense of Tsarnaev or any other terrorist, kidnapper, rapist, etc. It’s a shout-out to Martha Mullen, but also a reminder.

The fundamental rule, whether we are religious or not, seems to be some iteration of doing unto others what we would have done to us.

Whether we are Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist or agnostic, we all generally agree that it’s in our best interest to be nice to each other and to help each other.

A lot of the time though, this isn’t what we do. Sure, when there’s a big tragedy, we rally and we dive in, donating time and money to help those in need.

But on a day-to-day basis we aren’t very nice to each other. Sometimes we even treat each other terribly.

I’ve written about sending compassion to our enemies before, but it’s a message worth repeating.

I need constant reminders, especially when someone won’t let me merge on the highway, or when other people hurt me and the people I love. I especially need it when I’m faced with another story of the wounded, suffering animals.

We will never make the world a kinder, gentler place until we learn how to stop hating each other.

And to do that, we have to love everyone, even the “bad” people.

What I love about Mullen is that in that moment when she had that thought she embodied and lived the message of loving everyone even though she knew it wasn’t the most popular thing to do.

She did it because her compassionate heart told her it was the right thing to do.

That’s the real work. We can all be kind and compassionate to those who are kind and compassionate to us. But our real test comes when we are asked to love someone we really don’t want to love, or even someone we really hate.

I give you this example:

In my yoga class yesterday the teacher spoke extensively about compassion. She began by talking about how we need to learn to have compassion toward ourselves, and in doing so, we can begin to have it toward others. In that way we can change the world.

That sounded good.

But as class progressed I spotted someone on the other side of the room who I don’t like very much. I don’t know this person well, but she is connected to painful part of my life. I’m sure she’s a very lovely person—but she triggers a lot of shit for me.

Not only did I spend the first 30 minutes of class hating her, I spent those same 30 minutes hating myself for hating her, and for not being who I thought I was supposed to be during that period of my life. While I was doing that, the teacher was reiterating her lesson on compassion.

That’s how hard it is sometimes. You can be in a room dedicated to the cultivation of compassion, be getting a near constant reminder to practice it and still not be able to do so.

Like everything else, it’s a practice. And like every practice, we have to put in the effort and the work to get better at it.

Hate, like love, doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t say it’s okay to hate bad people because they are bad. We aren’t justified in sending our ill will, or in making things more difficult for another because of things they’ve done or said.

Our hate for Tsarnaev is the same hate that drove him to kill.

It’s difficult to live from this place, to have an open heart and to recognize that the pain you are feeling was caused by the pain someone else felt.

That’s what makes compassion a practice. We have to work at building its presence in our lives. We do this by meditating, and by becoming mindful of every moment.

It’s difficult, very difficult, especially in the heat of the moment, or when your heart is so battered and broken you’re not sure it will come back together this time. It’s hard in the small moments as well, like when you’re just trying to get through yoga class without a breakdown.

So we just do our best. We keep trying.

We come back to the breath, to our heart center. We remember that our pain won’t go away by wishing it on another. We do this over and over, until like Mullen, one day we find ourselves in the position where we know the right thing to do, and we do it.

Bonus from the wise:

“When you look deeply into your anger, you will see that the person you call your enemy is also suffering. As soon as you see that, the capacity of accepting and having compassion for him is there. Jesus called this ‘loving your enemy.’ When you are able to love your enemy, he or she is no longer your enemy. The idea of ‘enemy’ vanishes and is replaced by the notion of someone who is suffering and needs your compassion.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh




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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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