I remember a warm day in Pennsylvania. The temperature had increased dramatically after the cold snap of winter finally cracked beneath the pressure of spring. The sun shone bright and bold, the birds frantically chattered their glee while aggressively staking their nesting and mating territory. Fluffy white clouds sailed through the sky like proud matrons, gliding down the windswept, celestial aisle. The sun played peak-a-boo through their crocheted skirts.
My parents had gathered the family for yet another long journey to a church at least 4 hours away from home. Another dull Saturday morning, another seemingly endless trek to a new church where everyone would stare and church elders would seek to join our signatures to those freshly added members who had gone before with all the fervor of a
rabid car salesman holy shepherd of the flock. Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled; but it wasn’t as if I had a choice in the matter.
I must have been ten or twelve. I had been staring out the window, committing the route to memory, as I always had done. This hobby helped pass the time and provided a better alternative to napping which did not hold the slightest appeal for me. Wasting daylight seemed sacrilegious, plus I had no inclination to shut my eyes and miss the scenery, dull and repetitious though it might have been. Mother had long ago slipped into Morpheus’ arms, a regular haven for her during our weekly trips. The cares of the week would slip from her face, smoothing out the faint wrinkles, leaving her face expressionless and peaceful. Even my wayward and rambunctious sibling had followed mother’s lead and now frowned absently as the sunlight shined intensely on closed eyelids.
The car transported, on average, a population of 4 and approximately 50% of the passengers would be asleep at any given time throughout the duration of the trip. This particular day, this outcome seemed rather unfortunate since the boring highway had been left behind in favor of a beloved back-road, winding through the trees of freshly blossomed green leaves of all shades and tints. I say beloved, but more accurately the “back-roads” proved more interesting and often revealed snapshots of shy wildlife and beautiful scenes of nature without the drastic infringement of expressways. On any given day, it would be normal to spot deer, turkeys, groundhogs, and the occasional bird of prey. Instead of manicured lawn medians, metal guardrails, and severely trimmed and isolated spindles of shrubs, we were embraced by tall majestic trees that spread their canopy over us in a lovely shaded patchwork of light and shadow. Looking up, I could see the sun filtering through the leaves, tinging the light with a lemon-green hue. A burbling river paralleled the road and wove from one side of the road to another in playful silver stitching.
After crossing a rustic bridge, I saw the car pull over to the side where a small dirt turnoff provided room for cars to pull to the side of the road and approach the water’s edge. Father opened the door and stepped out, presumably to stretch his legs, and I tumbled after. After hours of sitting still, I wanted to amble about and get closer to the water. Awakened by the lack of motion, Mother sleepily reminded me to keep my clothes immaculate for church. Idling heeding my mother’s admonition, I was more distracted by the hindrance my dress was once again proving to be, in contrast to pants, which were my favored attire. I swapped out my dress shoes for sneakers and carefully approached the water.
The rough tumble of the river had gradually matured and widened at this juncture. Although the current was still strong a mere few feet from shore, the water near the riverbank had slowed to a leisurely flow. A sandbar jutted from a river bend and secured a small, mini ecosystem which harbored nearly calm water that protected what seemed to be hundreds of tadpoles.
I was so excited, I finally had found tadpoles!!
Here, I must interject and talk a little about my background. If you are picturing southern belle, calm and ladylike, you are sadly in the exact opposite direction of my disposition. I was -and still am- a tomboy who would prefer jeans to dresses. I happily spent the majority of my childhood catching frogs, toads, crickets, grasshoppers, and near every insect, amphibian, and possible reptile (yes snakes) on the property of my home. While I frequently saw and (temporarily) captured adult frogs, I had yet to see tadpoles before they had even reached the two-legged stage of maturity.
The tadpoles themselves were dark brown, the size of dimes, and had no legs yet, just tails. They looked like mini-stingrays as the edges of their bodies undulated like fins. They swam in a school in the shallows, zipping back and forth in the hollow between the river bank and the sandbar. I was entranced, until I glanced at the edge of the sandbar and spotted a tadpole struggling against the current, It had wandered too close to the current, and was now fighting a desperate battle to return to the safety of the shallows. The tadpole used the suction of its mouth to attach itself to the sand at the bottom of the river, as its tail wiggled furiously, attempting to swim back to the calmer shoal.
At first, the little guy looked like it would make it, it was only an inch or two from safety. But the persistent river current succeed in gradually dragging the tadpole further and further away from shore. A few seconds later, I realized that the tadpole would not be able to swim back to the shallows under its own power. It was getting tired, and was almost too far away to make it back.
On the one hand, I wanted to save the little guy. If a stronger power has the opportunity to save, shouldn’t that being step in and use that power “for good”? I remember thinking that all I had to do was reach into the water, scoop it up, and transport it to safety. Then I realized that I’d have to step into the water, POSSIBLY getting my clothes wet which would displease Mother (ah, childhood parameters).
On the other hand, there is that view taken by Natural Geographic -observe and let nature take its course. Well, Natural Geographic might have the right idea -survival of the fittest and all… I thought in that moment. So I just watched. In some irrational part of my mind, I was sure that the tadpole would make it back at the last moment and ultimately save itself.
But the river current was so strong, and the tadpole kept getting dragged further and further away from safety and towards the center of the river. I saw its struggle, and I wanted to help, but instead, I watched with a dark fascination as it struggled and was defeated over and over. With growing alarm, I realized that the tadpole was going to be lost if someone didn’t do something.
Maybe Dad can save it, I thought, conscious still of the mess my clothes would be in if I attempted to save the tadpole, with my short legs and even shorter reach.
In hindsight, it felt as though this whole decision process took minutes, but in reality, it was milliseconds. I opened my mouth to ask Dad to rescue the tadpole. But in that very moment, the current peeled the tadpole off the riverbed for the final time and swept it downstream.
It was gone.
Many years later, I still feel guilt for not saving that creature. Guilt -implying I made the wrong decision, and did not correct myself in time to save an innocent creature. Even now, my throat feels tight and tears prickle my eyes simply writing this out and remembering the moment. It is one of the few things I have done in my life for which I feel guilt and shame… Creatures may not have souls, but I would argue that each animal is precious, regardless.
What does this have to do with compassion?
“Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” ~Compassion as defined according to Google.
I was once struck with the thought that when an animal is born, it is a unique creature, not just genetically, but with quirks and characteristics that are individual to that being. Even each deer in a herd are different in their “personality” even though they may all look alike. And when an animal dies, that individuality is lost forever.
This may be a stretch, but I reflected on the fact that pet owners over time identify unique traits of their animals that they miss and notice even after the pet passes away. The personality of Bess, the family cow, was never found in another animal. There was no other dog like Lassie. Tom, the children’s cat, would always behave in a certain manner that no other cat mimicked or adopted. Once lost, the chief identifiers within that animal are gone “forever”.
Back to my point regarding compassion, sometimes I empathize too much with creatures who are purported to have no soul. But what’s wrong with that? Aside from Hindu concepts of Karma and Rebirth, few religions even believe that animals go to “heaven” or “hell” or other such extremes of experiences after death. What’s wrong with being sensitive for opportunities to practice good-stewardship? Animals are already stuck with a single “one-shot” time of existence. Meanwhile, wildlife suffer at the hands of human ineptitude, pets have a 50% likelihood of fairing better based solely on their owners’ temperament, whims, and inclinations, while exhibition animals reach longevity more from sheer boredom and backhanded conservation than any other reason.
Understanding the plight of dumb creatures, who are often unable to protest or defend themselves, takes compassion. If humans can be sensitive to the emotions in a song, architecture, or other artistic mediums, couldn’t we read the visage of beasts and see their “emotion”?
In that tadpole, I could see desperation, fear, and terror.
And the worst part is my purposeful inaction in that situation.
At this point, that tadpole has long ago lived and died -maybe it died that day, maybe it grew up to full frog-hood, and had little tadpoles of its own. I don’t know. I don’t know if it had a life after that day, and maybe I’m a bit silly for my concern and guilt so many years later. But if I learned a lesson that day, it is to never ignore someone or something in need, whether it be offering a helping hand, a listening ear, or a voice to speak.
Because it is better to act than to do nothing.
There is passion in compassion and to me, this is a directive to “come [with] passion”. Act with purpose, be conscious of the situation and the individual (person or plant or animal). Hesitation and doubt may result in an action or lack-of-action that may impact not just yourself, but another.
Come with passion. Be sympathetic and concerned with what is around you. Don’t tune out the world. Embrace the life around you and be part of the construction and creation rather than the destruction.