Live and let live

Up until that moment we’d been having what I’d found to be a thoughtful conversation about the state of the world and the pressing need for an increase in kindness and compassion. She was a retired social worker, her husband the former director of a prominent international NGO, both with a long history of good works.

We were sitting under a sun umbrella at a friend’s anniversary party, and I’d been trying to keep the many wasps safely at bay using a jam jar with a bit of maple syrup in the bottom. Safe for both them and us, I explained, mentioning that as a Buddhist I do my best not to kill other living beings. The conversation paused when one of the wasps flew down to the ground near us. Slowly and deliberately, she ground it to pieces with her shoe, all the time looking me straight in the eye.

This was a clear provocation and challenge to the personal values I’d shared a few minutes previously, so of course that felt hurtful. There was also the shock of watching a life being deliberately extinguished. I still remember vividly the moment that our elderly and very sick cat looked trustingly in our eyes, just before the lethal injection from the vet. ‘Putting him down’ remains one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But what hit me most strongly about the unnecessary death of that wasp was the misuse of power, as she blatantly and crudely put her own interests and preferences ahead of those of another living being. The more I reflect on the incident, it seems that it’s exactly the same misuse that lies at the root of many of the ills that beset us, such as racism, economic exploitation and the climate crisis. 

The word ‘kindness’ comes from ‘kin’, an acknowledgement of connectedness that refers not just to family and friends, but the interconnectedness that exists between every being on the planet. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we can’t survive independent of each other or even of  some of the living species that we’ve previously deemed inconvenient or unimportant. So kindness is more than just a moral dictate or something sweet and nice: it’s grounded in both compassion and wisdom, the qualities that the Buddha cherished the most. It’s also a direct expression of the Golden Rule: that our well-being and survival depends on treating others exactly as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Alison blog for The Good Heart

26th August 2019

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