Last week I attended an event where the indomitable Lynne Twist was speaking about commitment and compassion.
She spoke about the Hunger Project work she did in Africa and some of the surprising and disappointing things that happened while working in Zaire during the regime of Mobutu. Mobutu is considered by some to be one of the most cruel, brutal and reprehensible dictators in history.
Understandably, Lynne considered him to be a monster.
During this time she was invited to attend a state dinner in Tokyo. It turned out that the guest of honor was the evil perpetrator Mobutu. She found herself standing in a long reception line (with all the other guests and dignitaries) waiting to shake his hand.
Deeply conflicted, she debated whether to stay in line or risk offending her host (and one of her largest donors) by leaving the line. Just before it was her turn to shake the hand of the monster, Mobutu, she had an epiphany…she realized that something very terrible must have happened to him as a child that had him turn into the villainous man he became. And with that she was able to find compassion for the innocent child in him and shake his hand.
Hearing this story triggered my own memories about stories of a monster and despicable human being I grew up hearing about.
Until I went away to college, we spent every Sunday visiting my paternal grandparents in Miami, Florida. My Grandma Mae would make a big Jewish feast of brisket, noodle kugel, and other delicious food and delectable goodies and treats.
At least once a year we would be joined by our cousins from New Jersey…Al and Carol Lipson…they were holocaust survivors. Every visit they would share the story of how they endured the horrors of the concentration camp, they would show us the numbers tattooed on their bodies, they would tell us about the dozens of other relatives who died in the camps, and then their gripping story would end with the miracle of how they were reunited after the war.
After hearing this scary story, year after year, I asked my parents why they always talked about it and revisited the unfathomable, inexcusable horror. My parents told me if was very important that we never forget how Hitler killed millions of Jews. I grew up with a deep knowing that there was evil in the world and that evil is called Hitler.
Next: How I found compassion for Hitler
A few years ago we were in Venice, Italy with my sister Debbie and several friends and we went to see a contemporary art exhibition featuring the collection of Francois Pinault (Salma Hayak’s husband). It was in a gorgeous palace known as the Palazzo Grassi and it included works by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan and others.
I enjoy seeing these works but I don’t pretend to understand the depth, nuance and complexity of their meaning.
After viewing the art of the first floor, we began walking up a marble staircase to the next floor. Halfway up there was a landing and I noticed what looked like a young boy kneeling, in prayer position, facing the corner.
From the back the boy looked to be about 12 or 13 (the same age as my nephew Beau was at the time) and he was wearing clothes from the early 1900’s. He had brown hair and for a moment I thought – “that looks like it could be Beau.”
There was something still and serene about this boy in the prayer position. I walked to the side to see the boy’s face and Debbie and I were completely shocked and surprised to see the face of the adult Hitler, moustache and all.
I suddenly remembered that Hitler’s father had unexpectedly died when he was 13 years old and in that moment I felt a wave of compassion run though me. Hitler, the monster was once an innocent child (and yes, I still consider him a monster and this experience in no way minimized for me who and what he became.)
I tried to take a picture of this statue but security guards quickly stopped me. I asked why there were two guards…was it just to stop people like me who wanted to take a photograph? The guard who spoke English told me that many people had such a negative reaction to the art that they would try to spit on it or harm it in someway (that was certainly the immediate reaction of some of my friends who were with us.)
Just as Lynne found compassion for Mobutu, I found that a work of art became a life-changing experience for me…. I learned that even in the most horrific of circumstances, compassion can be found.
Being able to open my heart and find compassion for a monster is a dimension of Wabi Sabi Love- the art of finding perfection in imperfection that I never anticipated. This experience became, for me, the next level to grow a generous heart and to discover the depth and range in terms of love, compassion and appreciation within myself, when I am willing and courageous enough to explore these potentials.
Where or when have you found compassion for the impossible?
PS Do you have a Wabi Sabi Love question? Click here, I would love to hear from you!