Finding the Wisdom, Courage, and Compassion to See That The Other Is Us

Hands holding another person's hands
Hands holding another person's hands

A few weeks ago, I saw a photo of a beautiful baby boy being cradled by his mother, Helene Muyal-Leiris, who happened to go to a rock concert in Paris one Friday night, where she was assassinated, along with hundreds of others, there and elsewhere in the City of Light.

I could only imagine what her husband, Antoine Leiris, must be feeling, having lost the woman he described as "the love of his life." Then, I saw an interview with Leiris, where he refused to succumb to hatred--expressing instead the affirmation that life and love will go on. He said he wants his son to love the things his mother loved: literature, culture, and art. He told her attackers, "[R]esponding to hatred with anger is falling victim to the same ignorance that has made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to view my countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my liberty for my security. You lost."

This young father's heart is broken; his family has been shattered. And yet, from the depths of unfathomable suffering, he summons extraordinary wisdom.

Traveling not long ago through London's Heathrow Airport, I met a Syrian man who helped me with my luggage. He and his family had come to the United Kingdom as refugees five years ago. They have made a good life -- but in recent weeks, they and others in their community have been threatened. Some of their friends have even been beaten. Yet, he said he understands.

He told me, "People are just afraid"; and then he added, "So are we."

In the face of intolerance, unkindness, and fear, this man radiates empathy and courage.

Earlier this month, someone threw a pig's head at the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society in Philadelphia. This ugly hate crime was intended to harass, and to inspire division and mistrust.

And yet, in the face of cruelty, the neighboring community unleashed their compassion. Shows of solidarity poured in, including Facebook comments like this one: "I am shocked and saddened by this display of hatred. I wanted to let you know that you are a valued part of our neighborhood. Sending thoughts of peace." Flowers, candy, and other gifts arrived at the center's door.

Marwan Kreidie, the executive director of the Arab American Development Corp., which is housed in the same building, told the PhillyVoice, "The most common refrain I hear from congregants is that they 'have never felt more proud in being an American and a Philadelphian.'"

Fueled by compassion, the power of love is vanquishing darkness and hate.

Confucius once said, "Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of man." At a time when the headlines are dominated by stories of extremism and xenophobia, from Daesh terrorists to Donald Trump, these three vignettes remind us that wisdom, compassion, and courage cannot be extinguished. Even as messengers of hate and prejudice are trying to turn us against one another, these stories are proof that the light of human connectedness can prevail.

Moreover, they underscore the power of seeing ourselves in the other, as in the Sanskrit aphorism Tat tvam asi, "thou art that." For, when we value our common humanity over our differences--when we acknowledge the other is us--that is when we are enabled, and ennobled, to realize our own best selves.

In my country, Canada, one such moment of revelation came in September of this year, when we saw the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year Syrian Kurdish child who washed up dead on a Turkish beach, after he and his family set out on a boat, seeking refuge overseas.

The Latin root of "compassion" is "to suffer with," and that is the sentiment Aylan's story evoked--especially as reports emerged that his family, including his mother and brother, who also perished, had hoped to come to Canada. How could we look at Aylan's tiny, limp body and not imagine our own children on that beach? How could we hear the words of Aylan's anguished father--"I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die"--and not feel our own hearts break?

Yet, what makes compassion meaningful is when emotion is connected to action, and that is what happened in Canada. At every level, from the national government to local agencies to individuals, people have stepped forward in the wake of Aylan's death to sponsor and support refugees. And, in so doing, they have not only made the future better for others, but they have given themselves a gift too: the gift of reciprocity, of seeing that everything is mutual and that we only belong if we belong together.

As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told immigration staff and volunteers who had gathered at Pearson International Airport in Toronto December 11 to welcome the arrival of 163 Syrians, "how you will receive these people tonight will be something they will remember for the rest of their lives, but also I know something that you will remember for the rest of your lives. And I thank you deeply for being a part of this because this matters, tonight matters, not just for Canada but for the world."

May we all find the wisdom, compassion, and courage to see that the other is us.