Once a dear teacher of mine said he believed evil was “indifference to others.” This statement “bugged” me for many months. You see, I had always thought of evil as conscious acts of violence or cruelty, conjuring up images of Nazi’s, death camps, terrorists, and child molesters. How could this man I respected and loved so deeply equate evil with indifference to others? After all, I had lived most of my life “under the radar”, so to speak, seeking comfort, staying out of trouble, and not making waves. I voted, had a good job, paid my taxes, got married, and had kids like a “good person” is supposed to. I thought if everyone was more or less like me, we could all get along, nobody would get hurt, and we could all live in peace. I had been well coached in this by my parents who just wanted me to be nice, do well, and make them proud.
I had lived my life pretty well following these precepts. All went pretty much as planned until I retired from my second career as a psychotherapist, became very ill and almost died. These latter events woke me up to the fact that there was much more to life than being safe, comfortable, and acceptable to others. At that moment, waking up in the ICU, having survived open-heart surgery and two strokes, for the first time I saw the truth in my teacher’s statement. There I experienced care and compassion from others, many of whom were complete strangers to me. Thanks to their care I was able to come back and find myself once again in the land of the living, with a second lease on life.
My teacher’s call to have compassion and not be indifferent to the suffering of others is an exact statement of what I realized in my helplessness and confusion in the hospital. It is in simple acts of compassion shown to me by so many, that I found my way back to the land of the living. It is only in countless acts of compassion by many responding to the suffering of others, that we will find our way through the numbing, painful horror we see all around us. It is in silence and indifference that evil grows into acts of violence and hate.
The Buddha said we all, in a sense, are “mothers and fathers taking care of each other.” This is the most direct antidote to the evil of indifference to others that is available to us. The need is great. There is no more meaningful calling than finding and sharing many simple acts of compassion, like fetching water and bathing and caring for the sick. We are in be best position to do this if we recognize that there is no such things as “otherness,” we are all mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters to each other.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.