As I’ve meandered through life, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the whole thing is a sort of celestial game and that I’m here to find the answers. Most of the time, I’m not even sure what the original question was, so have to sit down and try to put bits and pieces of events together to formulate a reasonable question. Then and only then, can I apply myself to finding the answer for it.
And sometimes a few words or an apparently stray phrase stays buried in the minutiae of my daily living and never resurfaces. But at other times it will pop up again weeks or even years later, bringing with it a much clearer understanding of what the original question was as well as a satisfying and somehow predestined answer to it. At that point I somehow feel that God has allowed me a cheat sheet and that I’ve been given a special helping hand. And I always say, “Thanks.”
But once in a while, the question and answer are so intertwined they become a single truth. The answer is so profound that that the question dissolves and disappears. God or the Universe speaks with utter and unmistakeable clarity. There can be no rebuttal. Intellectually or philosophically. No mental machinations and convoluted reasoning can weaken the truth. It is there. Pure and beautiful and somehow … sacred.
For me it was one simple sentence. Spoken by an ordinary woman comforting her daughter.
Every summer for over ten years I came back to Canada from India where I had settled with my husband after our marriage. As the monsoons swept into Bombay, I was duly packed off to the airport to escape the torrential rains and the threat of cholera and typhoid which rose dramatically during the wet season. And I would head for Montreal where I had a lovely little townhouse, complete with my beloved piano and a wonderful array of neighbors always eager for tales of my exotic life half a world away.
I would usually plan a couple of weeks with my parents on the West Coast and arrange visits with my two sisters as well. One summer I decided to start my vacation in Victoria with Mum and Dad and then go back for the last two months to Montreal. I loved Victoria with its subtle blend of English refinement overlayed with hippie sensibilities. I could wander through the galleries gathering inspiration from the native Indian artists, have tea with Mom at the Empress Hotel and then wander a few blocks away to Beacon Hill Park where regular “smoke ins” were held to support the legalization of marihuana. Very sedately and politely of course. It was a unique and very interesting city.
But this particular summer, I had a weight on my heart. I had committed a true sin. According to the Bible …. according to the Koran ….. according to just about any holy text I could think of. I was a sinner.
I tried to push it to the back of my mind and enjoy my time with my parents, but my Mother and I were very very close. Sometimes so close that as a child I thought she had the ability to read my mind. Needless to say with Mom’s supernatural talents, I didn’t risk much mischief. I was an exceptionally honest child.
Now I was doing my best to maintain a veneer of good cheer and trying to avert too much discussion which might lead to a confession of what I’d done. Several days passed and one morning as I was swabbing away the oil from a small prayer lamp I carried with me on all my trips, Mom came into the room and stood behind me for a few moments. Then she put her arms around my shoulders.
“Now dear …. there is something bothering you …” she said. It was not a query, it was a knowing statement and one which I couldn’t refute.
I looked at her, into those so-familiar dark brown eyes, now containing both warmth and a question. I felt my throat constrict. I couldn’t lie. I’d never lied to my Mother. Not through all my childhood years, not when I was punished in school, not when I knocked Sissy off her bike, not when I swiped the baking chocolate from her cooking cabinet. I never lied. I couldn’t lie now.
I hung my head and my confession came out in a sudden gush of words, as if by getting them out all at once I could purge myself. Tears ran down my face and began to gather on my collar. For some reason a single verse from one of the Psalms ran through my mind.
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”
To be purged. To have my sins expunged by confession, like the Catholics did. But Mom was a Protestant and as a child I knew we didn’t have Confessions. We didn’t have that chance to be washed clean. We had to bear our guilt without any Divine succor. We paid for our crimes with that gnawing feeling of having been wrong. And sometimes even saying sorry wasn’t enough. Now I knew sorry would never be enough.
Finally I looked up at Mother. She sat like stone, her eyes partially closed and her hands twisted together in her lap. Her upper lip had tightened and I could see the tension at the corners of her mouth. A slight controlled quivering. She was terribly disappointed … or angry. I couldn’t tell which. Perhaps it was both.
I fixed my eyes on her face for several long minutes. Finally she spoke.
” I disapprove wholeheartedly with what you’re doing ……” she began. Her lips had compressed into a thin harsh line. She paused for a moment and sighed.
Then almost imperceptibly the corners of her mouth stopped twitching and her lips relaxed. I waited for her to look up at me. And suddenly she did, unfolding her hands and grasping mine. I looked into her dark eyes, now softened and glistening with tears. Miraculously there was love there. It was still there.
She looked at me solemnly for what seemed like a very long time . Then she squeezed my hands and wiped away one of my tears as she said very very softly …
” But I empathize …”
More than twenty years have passed. I have never heard wiser words. This simple statement could change the world. We don’t have to agree. We merely have to understand there are other points of view, other situations we may not fully understand. If we can disagree and yet still empathize, we can heal ourselves … and heal the world.
Love is not the answer. It has too many interpretations. But empathy has only one meaning. It means putting yourself into another person’s soul, even if only temporarily, even if just long enough not to pass judgement and to forgive. It goes beyond love to enable it.
That is enough.