Recently I watched a re-run of the TV drama “ER” titled “Time of Death” which left me in tears throughout the whole show. It was about the last forty-four minutes of a man’s life and how the ER doctors and nurses tried to save him, but unfortunately were unable to do so. Charlie, the patient, was an alcoholic and an ex-con who came to the ER with serious issues, but it was too late.
One doctor in particular only saw a drunken ex-con and didn’t think they should waste their time trying to save him. As the minutes wore on, we began to learn about Charlie’s past and about the trauma of seeing his wife killed. They had a young son and he knew he needed to go on because of him, but losing his wife destroyed him and he ended up losing his way. Eventually, he lost contact with his son, became an alcoholic, killed a man in a bar fight, and ended up in prison.
A nurse is able to call his now adult son and puts him on loud speaker while they continue to desperately work on Charlie. When the son finds out his dad is dying, his last words are, “Nice knowing you, Dad,” and he hangs up. Charlie starts to cry and you can see how it affects the other doctors and nurses. As the judgmental doctor learns more about Charlie’s past, you can see his heart start to melt, and in the place of judgment, compassion begins to overwhelm him.
It’s so easy for us to see someone’s current circumstances and judge them based on what we perceive to be the truth at the time. But every person has a story. Every past experience makes us who we are today. No one is born thinking that one day they’ll grow up to be a certain way whether that life is perceived as good or bad. We make choices for whatever reasons based upon our upbringing, culture, experiences, etc., which also determines our beliefs and how we perceive our lives and the world around us.
It’s one of the best lessons I’ve learned because I can now look at someone and ask myself, “I wonder what happened to them in their life that caused them to make the decisions that changed the course of their lives?” We never do know a person’s state of mind. If we can’t have compassion for the adult they’ve become, then maybe we can have compassion for the infant they once were. Remember, it’s only by fate that we’re not walking in someone else’s shoes.
The Dalai Lama said, “Love is the absence of judgment.” And Pema Chödrön stated, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
Published in the Cookeville Herald Citizen newspaper January 12, 2018.