Below is an essay that won a competition in celebration of a visit to my university by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. It was printed in a booklet, and gifted to His Holiness. We had been challenged to answer (in 500 words or less) this question: “What does ‘compassion-without-borders’ mean to you?” Below is my working definition, compiled in the middle of a glorious African night. Please comment with your thoughts.
I remember the first time I stood before people in my home country to ask them to help orphans in another country 10,000 miles away. (I was in the United States, talking about children living with AIDS here in Uganda.) Most of the people in the room responded with tears and generosity—a compassion without borders. They cared about their fellow person, no matter where she or he may be.
I also remember another person in the same room. She raised her hand and asked a question I have heard many times since. And no matter how often I hear it, it always takes my breath.
She began simply: “I have a question.”
“Of course, what is it?” I replied.
“With so many needy children here,” she said, “so many suffering people in America—why should I give money to children all the way over there?”
Then I looked directly into her eyes, and with my own compassion I quietly said, “There is absolutely no logical reason that you should.”
There was silence then.
I continued, “Compassion is not informed by that sort of logic. This is precisely what makes it so special, so beautiful, and so powerful. Compassion is not something we offer to each other from a place of compulsion.”
I paused again, looking for the words, then: “Compassion springs forth from the raw beauty of the human spirit. If we were forced to offer it, it would become something far different, something much less magnificent. But when it is freely offered from one spirit to another—and graciously accepted in the same way—I believe it gives life its very meaning.”
Not many days later, I found myself in the space “way over there [here]” (as it had been put to me)—seated in the very humble office of the Postmaster in my small village in Uganda. I was telling him about my colleagues’ and my work with orphans living with AIDS.
He sat back in his chair, and sincerely asked, “Why are you wasting time and money on these kids who are going to die anyway?”
Again, my very breath was taken from me.
But only for a moment.
Again, I looked my fellow person in the eye.
This time I asked my own questions: “What if it were you? What if someone could help you—though you were ‘dying anyway’? Would their help still be a waste?”
He didn’t reply.
So what is my definition of “Compassion without borders”? Too often, there are political and geographical borders, there are life-and-death borders, and there are borders of logic and meaning-making.
But let us be modern-day explorers who see not the confines of these borders or the horizon, nor of budget and politics, nor of personal logic and public opinion.
But let us be people of courage and purpose, people who see the precious liberty of discovery.
The power of purpose.
And the transformational and beautiful face…