Thursday, October 27, 2011

Does success lead to indifference?

About a week ago a horrific incident in China spread across the interwebs with videos popping up showing the world the unbelievable – a hit-and-run crash in which a truck runs over a toddler in a Chinese market. But it wasn’t just the hit-and-run itself that was so shocking. It was the nearly two-dozen people who walked by the toddler as she lay injured and bleeding in the alley. Of all people, it was an immigrant woman collecting trash who saw the child and came to her aid.

There was plenty of U.S. media coverage of the incident; this particular video is stunning, although there are more graphic videos out there that show the actual collision between the truck and the child. An article in the Chinese newspaper Xinhua revealed how quickly Chinese and the world shared the story across the Internet. But perhaps much more revealing was this statement in the Xinhua article:

“The incident has left many people to wonder if China's rapid economic development has had an effect on ethics and morality in the general public.”

This particular incident in China may recall to some a similar event that occurred in the U.S. in 1964, the Catherine “Kitty” Genovese murder. The lead in the New York Times article about the murder, published two weeks after the killing, present an ugly and horrifying picture of fear and apathy:

“For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

“Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”

This literally became a textbook example in many schools – I know we talked about it in a high school class of mine – of how people become numbed by fear and no longer show any interest in their fellow human beings.

How do people become so insensitive to others? It’s a natural question to ask, but it’s not really the right question to ask, the skillful question to ask. We can examine why people become insensitive, why they lack compassion or are unwilling to show compassion toward others, until we have what we might consider a definitive answer. But finding that answer won’t ensure we become compassionate ourselves, it does not lead one to being more compassionate.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, I was with a buddy of mine and his mom as we walked through downtown Midland, Mich., for the annual carnival days and sidewalk sales. It was such a gay time, but as we walked along I saw how people were making way for something. As we got near we saw a man lying on the sidewalk, blood streaming from his nose. Apparently he had been in a fight right there and was knocked down, his assailant nowhere to be seen. I’d never seen that much blood come out of a person’s nose before. He was conscious, but just lying there. My friend’s mom without hesitation, with not a shred of shock or dismay on her face, took her handkerchief out of her handbag and offered it to the man. I can still picture her in her slim dress, probably a Jackie O kind of thing that all the women were wearing at the time, it had to be about 1968, just as prim as can be offering her clean white lace-trimmed hanky to this brute on the ground with blood forming a pool just below his face. He at first declined her offer. She insisted, said it wasn’t doing her any good and it would likely do him some good. He acquiesced. Could she get some medical help? No, he wanted to be left alone. So be it, and we moved on. All during that episode, dozens of other people just walked by, taking only furtive glances before hurrying on. As we walked on, a couple medics were apparently on their way to help.

There were a lot of other children around that day. For most of them, the lesson was don’t pay attention, don’t get involved, pretend it doesn’t exist.

We don’t need to understand why people lack compassion. We simply must instill it within ourselves and express it to others. Unsurprisingly, the Buddha had plenty to say about this because even monks are not immune to indifference.

In the Kucchivikara-vatthu, the Buddha encounters a sangha where there is a monk seriously ill with dysentery, fouled with his own urine and excrement. But none of the other monks are attending to the sick monk. The Buddha asks the sick monk why.

"I don't do anything for the monks, lord, which is why they don't attend to me."

Now, the Buddha is a level headed guy, not given to extreme fits of emotion. Nonetheless, I have to think that when the Buddha heard this, he was freaking fucking mad. But the first thing the Buddha did was to immediately start attending to the monk, bathed him and put him to bed. After that, the Buddha went to the rest of the monks and asked them why they hadn’t been attending to the ailing monk. Their answer?

"He doesn't do anything for the monks, lord, which is why (we) don't attend to him."

Being the level-headed guy that he was – I mean really, getting all angry and bent out of shape accomplishes nothing – the Buddha firmly reminded the monks that they have abandoned their homes, which means they have no mothers or fathers or siblings or anyone else to attend to them. That means they must attend to each other.

It’s part of the Four Right Efforts when you think about it: Remove negative behavior and thinking from ourselves that already exists; prevent new negative behavior and thinking from arising in us that doesn’t already exist; further develop positive thinking and behavior that is already developed in us; and nurture and encourage new positive thinking and behavior in us that doesn’t already exist. We don’t need to understand why; we just need to do it because the benefits of such self-directed action will be readily apparent.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many obstacles out there that actively discourage being compassionate. As the title of this post suggests, new-found prosperity can lead to callousness, even without us being aware of it. We live in such a litigious society that we may fear aiding others because we might get sued. And particularly with children, men – especially gay men – need to be extra careful. If I see an obviously lost or distressed child, I don’t help the child. Instead, I seek out a woman and ask her to help the child, because if I do it, someone will carelessly accuse me of being a child molester.

But I think the most dangerous and destructive mental attitude we must be alert for is this line of thinking: This doesn’t pertain to me, it’s none of my business.

That Chinese toddler died from her injuries. Had she received help promptly, it might have been a different outcome. Then again, she might have died anyway. But all those people who ignored her? Oh, the kamma they have made.

The image with this post is not mine, but was given to me with permission to use. However, I can't recall whose image it is, so let me know so I can give you proper credit.

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