Web of Compassion

By Esther P. Littlewood

A middle-aged couple entered the restaurant where we were drinking a cup of coffee, the woman wheeling a pusher with a baby in it -- except that it was not a normal pusher but shaped flat like a tray, with the type of wheel one finds on a wheelchair; the baby that lay on it was a much older child with a big head but with a misshapen body the size of an 8-month-old infant. As they made their way through the diningroom, people's eyes followed the little procession and someone near me murmured: "They never should have let it live." It was said with deep pity in the voice, and it was even an understandable reaction.

As the parents settled in a booth, however, it soon became apparent that the child in question would not have shared those sentiments for, impossible as it seemed, it wheeled itself all around with its tiny arms and hands, chatting with the waitress, and obviously enjoying itself. When dinner was served, it was called to order and, lying on its side on top of the table, shielded from the draft by a big shawl, it heartily ate a good helping of spaghetti -- the long slithery threads never missing its mouth.

The remark that they should not "have let it live," lingered in my mind. On the surface one might see nothing but suffering in the situation, both for the father and mother who must have had this baby late in life, and for the little thing itself, as yet not fully aware of its fate. But there was another side to it: what struck one was the irrepressible urge of the child to look around and communicate, its will to live and experience. Then too, there were the kindness and love of the parents and the obvious ingenuity with which they had taught it to move around and manage to do for itself whatever it could. As they sat there, they were not gloomy and down-at-heart, but a cheerful family, laughing and having a pleasant time together.

Terrible as their circumstances might seem to us, from the larger viewpoint here was also an opportunity for all three individuals involved to learn patience, acceptance and self-sacrifice. The older people evinced inner strength, no doubt born from their difficulties and the positive approach they had adopted. And what about the child itself? One might well wonder what courage a soul must have to take upon itself a condition of total helplessness. Had the personality been of such a dominating disposition in a former life that this constraint was necessary to force it into another direction? For whenever we grow too one-sided, nature provides checks, limits, in an attempt to reestablish harmony and balance. She made us so we can feel pain, or we might senselessly destroy ourselves; she also endowed us with the capacity to suffer, thereby setting boundaries to our self-centered impulses. Mercifully, a veil of oblivion falls between one embodiment and the next, thereby focusing our full attention on the present -- the only moment in time over which we have control.

"Hopefully they have a philosophy or religion to explain things," I said to my life-partner. He replied: "Do you remember my telling you of some old friends of mine who began to look for answers just because of a similar situation?" I nodded. Karma's web surrounds us, linking our destiny with that of others, and in its divinely devised economy it works for the greatest all-round benefit of everyone concerned. Sometimes we feel as though this web is nothing but a prison, physically and psychologically, from which we would fain free ourselves. But when we stop our desperate struggle and rise above our circumstances for a moment of honest reflection, we can suddenly perceive that each of its threads is woven from the prime substance of the universe: compassion.

(From Sunrise magazine, December, 1976 Copyright © 1976 Theosophical University Press)

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