As is the case for many other people, my morning routines are often full: getting our kids up and dressed, give them a breakfast that doesn’t have the word “frosted” or “sugar” before a cereal, get them in the car, and take them to their respective school. I share the road with thousands of other dads and moms, folks sipping their morning coffee, or checking their smartphones. The roads are packed, and the traffic can be intense.
This morning though, I saw the most extraordinary sight. The four lane road leading to my daughter’s school was blocked on both sides, with one woman standing in the middle of the road, arms stretched out to the side like a Christ figure. Her own car was stopped on the right hand lane, and had the blinkers on. Cars on both sides of the road were at a stand still, and we were all marveling at what she was doing.
I followed the eyes of the other drivers, and noticed that they were not looking at the woman, but rather at her feet. Finally I saw what everyone had been staring at: there, in the middle of this highway, was an old turtle which was slowly, very s l o w l y, crossing the busy highway. The woman had stopped her car, brought the traffic to a stand still, and was providing safe passage to the turtle. Without her intervention, there was little doubt that in a few seconds, some unsuspecting driver would have crushed the turtle that was probably older than most drivers on the road.
She was not an extraordinary woman, in many ways. You would walk past her a million times in a grocery store without pausing to look twice. She wasn't young, tall, buff, or beautiful. Yet her action was extraordinary, and indeed beautiful. It radiated strength, and compassion. There was something transformative about seeing courage and love, out in public, from the most ordinary of people.
I surveyed the faces of the drivers I could see, expecting to find some frustration at the 2-3 minutes that this intervention was going to cost them. It would not have surprised me to find some rolling their eyes, honking their horns, or tapping the steering wheel in frustration. Much to my surprise, and then delight, that is not at all what I saw on face after face. Instead, I saw gentle, compassionate smiles. What I saw were people nodding in a knowing fashion, approving of this selfless display of compassion.
There was a wave of gratitude that washed over me at that spot: what if compassion, and the acknowledgement of compassion, is what is actually hardwired into our being? What if we are not these potentially frustrated and rushed beings, but actually made to live in compassion? And what if there are those who are willing to live out lives of compassion come to be met with acknowledgement of compassion, mirroring that very love back to them?
On the way home, there was another connection that came to my heart, something unexpected. My mind wandered back to the teachings of Dr. King, that maestro of compassion lived out loud, talks about a profound transformation that occurs when we project the “I” into the “thou” and stop trying to live compassion by proxy. In Dr. King’s account, we get to the point when we stop asking the question of “if I stop to help them, what will happen to me?” and we end up acting on “if I do not stop help them, what will happen to them?”
This is what the woman who helped the turtle cross the road did. She didn’t think about the danger to her, or her car, if she stopped and got out of the car. She didn’t think about what would happen to her if she was 3 minutes late getting to her next destination. She acted based on the direct command of compassion: If she did not stop to help the turtle, what would happen to the giant creature?
As I drove home, another question, another moral dilemma, presented itself to me:
We live in a world where one out of every five human beings lives on a dollar a day.
We live in a world where poverty is not a “natural” condition, anymore than slavery or war are natural conditions. We, the living human community, acquiesce in the face of conditions that perpetuate the trauma of war and poverty everyday. We, even the best-intentioned of us, have convinced ourselves that the problems we face are “too big” to be fixed. Yet, if we took the resources that we as a human community spend on warfare in a given year and set aside eight days out of that full year’s budget, we could wipe out hunger, we could eliminate poverty.
Will we act?
Will we get out of our car, and help our fellow human beings cross this dangerous road that we ourselves have created?
Will we rise beyond the “if I stop to help my fellow human beings, what will happen to me?” question, and will we arrive at the “if I do not stop to help my fellow human beings, what will happen to them?”
Will we do so not out of pity, but merely out of love and concern for our fellow travelers on the path of life?
Maybe, just maybe, we would find that more people than not are willing to live out this creed of compassion for all. Maybe, just maybe, we would find that the people we expect to be hostile towards our sacrificial action would actually nod knowingly, and compassionately. And maybe, just maybe, a few would join in.
That turtle got to cross the dangerous road due to the selfless compassion of one woman.
May all of God’s children get to cross the dangerous road of life to reach their destination.
We need all of us to stop the traffic of madness, and re-create this path as what it has been intended to be: a safe passageway for all of God’s creatures to reach their destination. May we be participants in making it so.