Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Genocide has many causes, but no reason: a lesson in compassion – Part 1

Our first day of studying genocide in Rwanda started at the Kigali Genocide Memorial and Museum. Upon entering the facility, you first pass an armed guard then a wide gravel parking lot. You are surrounded by gray, a man in navy blue, and an AK47. It is a daunting walk. Past a wall, a white building rises surrounded by verdant gardens, aquamarine shallow pools and a glowing orange flame atop a white sculpture. There is life. Every part of the memorial is intentional. The flame is a sign of mourning lifted upwards to heaven balanced on white poles topped with white knobs – reminiscent of bones and proud people standing tall. It is set in a pool of water symbolizing life. This yin and yang, light and dark, life and death, appear in multiple places throughout the space. Each time we were pulled toward despair, we were sucked back into hope. The seesaw affect was exhausting, but appropriate.

The tour started at the top of a flight of stairs. Each step was short, leading us gradually towards the mass graves. Then, after walking through a shady canopy of brilliant yellow lilies upheld by trellised vines, we stepped out onto descending stone slabs about 50 yards long. The mass graves were dotted with baskets of flowers adorned with ribbons stating “Never Forget” in three different languages. We walked down the path to the last slab, which was still open. Glass paned doors revealed purple and white cloth-covered coffins each emblazoned with a cross. The shiny satin seemed as gaudy as the pristinely white sign of the cross making death look so neat and tidy. Pretty crosses have never made sense to me.

I couldn’t believe we didn’t bring flowers to the graves. Why hadn’t I thought to pick up some lovely silk peonies before our trip? I felt ashamed by my thoughtlessness. Then, I looked down and under my feet was agate gravel; iridescent white, streaked with burnt orange and reddish pink – almost bloodstained. I picked up a stone and remembered a tradition.* Whispering, I explained to Benon, “In our family, it is our custom to place stones on a grave.” Then I asked, “Do you think anyone would be offended if we placed stones here?” He replied in his Yoda-esque, sing-song way, “Not a problem, I think.” I showed Matthew my stone and he picked one up also. We walked up to an out of the way spot and placed the stone on the grave. I couldn’t let it go. Tears welled up and burned my eyelids. I spoke to God, “Please bless this place and the memory of the people buried here. May their souls and those who mourn them be free from fear, free from compulsion, blessed with love, blessed with peace.” It is a prayer I read about in Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s book, The Sacred Art of Loving Kindness (p.27). It is a Buddhist practice of Metta prayer and compassion.

Before coming to Rwanda, I knew I had work to do on being compassionate. When I first read Loving Kindness, Rami’s words on fearless compassion stopped me cold. I couldn’t move past those pages of chapter 3. It wasn’t until at least the third try that I made it past the chapter and finished the book. It took over a year. I had too much fear and too much empathy to engage in compassion, as well as some misconceptions. I always assumed that having compassion was equivalent to feeling sorry for someone and through that sensation, being motivated to do something to alleviate their pain or suffering. I also took compassion to mean empathy – intimately sharing someone else’s feelings. I thought, if I can feel a victim’s pain accurately enough, I can absorb some of it and thereby diminish his or her pain. Through compassion, I could also ward off the things I feared most; that somehow my “hyper vigilance” in experiencing someone else’s suffering would ward off my own (thank you Tina Fey for accurately putting this practice into words in your memoir, Bossy Pants and thank you Hannah for telling me about it). For example, if I felt enough of a rape victim’s pain, I would avoid being raped. If I practiced loved ones’ funerals in my imagination, they wouldn’t die tragically before their time. Insanity.
More recently, I came face to face with my lack of compassion skills when I was teaching at an inner-city school. The children were faced with horrors I didn’t believe existed beyond Hollywood crime dramas. Complicated issues of race, poverty, religious persecution, language barriers, neglect and abuse awaited them every day at dismissal and there was so little I could do about it. So, I took on the mantel of their pain and anger. I became useless in the classroom and ultimately took a position at another school. Trying to absorb all the pain my students felt left me incapacitated, stripped of my strength, stressed to the point of illness, frustrated to the point of lashing out at their misbehavior, gasping for breath, and gritting my teeth so hard that one broke.

Slowly, I have realized that being a feelings sponge is not a useful endeavor nor is it truly compassionate. The word is deceptive. Compassion means to suffer with and I took it literally. But, this is a fruitless pursuit. As Rami says, “If I come to you in pain and you end up with the same pain, all we have done is add to the world’s suffering” (22). That year at Cameron Middle School, I added to the world’s suffering.

This trip has been about the second part of compassion: letting go. I can share the suffering in the moment of visiting the memorial, I can use that pain to motivate me to share Rwanda’s story so that “Never Again” will become a reality, but I will not add to the pain of the genocide by taking that pain into my being and letting it manifest itself in me.

Placing the stone on the mass grave was my first true act of compassion. Holding the rock, praying through tears, squeezing my partner’s hand, and then releasing the rock, I let it go. By not carrying the weight of that place on my heart, I am light enough, free enough to act as an advocate and educator.

But, this was only the beginning of the tour. Not only did I have the rest of the memorial and museum to go, but two more days of experiences ahead.

*Placing small rocks or stones on a grave is a Jewish tradition that I first experience at Matthew’s grandmother’s gravestone setting service. It is a beautiful remembrance and sign of love and respect, though I don’t know much about the tradition’s history.


  1. That's one of the most incredible things I've ever read. It's wonderful that this experience has been such a significant one in ways you might not have expected.

  2. Ellen! I love the way that you think about things like compassion and figure out the best way to carry them out, but I'd say that any deposits to the world's suffering that you may have made at Cameron were canceled out by the good you did there. I never thought that you added to anyone's suffering while you were there, except maybe your own, and OK, probably Matthew's, too. But stop thinking about it like you didn't help the kids or the other teachers (ahem), because you did. A lot. You definitely absorbed suffering in larger than recommended amounts, but good grief, you also doled out huge amounts of compassion, which everyone needed.

  3. Ellen, so good. Carry it..let it go. Carry it, let it go. We move through the world this way. When you believe in God, which you and Matthew both do, you leave the rock, or the prayer, or the child...in God's hands. As far as your work at Cameron goes, Jenny said it. You did good work, although at your own expense, in every way. So now, your last person to have compassion on in that Cameron instance is yourself. And then you let go. xoxo