One of the conditions of our trip to Italy was that my husband's brother was determined to visit Pompeii. I can't say I had his passion for this excursion, but I did remember reading about the story of Pompeii as a child, and I thought it might prove interesting.
I'm not sure what I expected, now that I look back on it. Perhaps I thought there might be little tableaux, like the ones you sometimes see in museums, of people frozen in the midst of simple household tasks? Or perhaps it was just that that's what the illustrations were in the book I'd read so long ago.
What I didn't expect was a dead dog, perfectly preserved in ash, contorted in agony; what I didn't expect was this person, also preserved, in a final act of prayer. There is something about the posture of prayer that is so universal, so recognizable, that despite the fact that there were hundreds of tourists passing by this, one of the few human figures at the site, there was virtual silence at this point in the journey. We could all identify, and I suspect we were all humbled by the sight.
I visited a meditation gathering of local Buddhists last night, and when the evening was done the conversation turned -- not surprisingly -- to our recent election. And each person in the room spoke of tears they had shed, relief they had felt, hope that had begun to rise again. "I had no idea how depressed and discouraged I was," said one woman, "until it was over, and I realized I was actually proud again to be an American."
Everyone also had stories to tell of friends they knew in other parts of the world -- in Denmark, in France, in Canada, in Taiwan who had told them there was dancing in the streets in all these faraway places when Obama won.
"Yes," said one, "But there is so much work to be done."
"Ah," said another, "But he won't be doing it alone!" and they all began to discuss ways they could help, volunteer opportunities, contribution opportunities...
There are moments -- rare, to be sure, but they do exist -- when the barrier that separates us as individuals from the rest of humanity becomes highly permeable, if not invisible. And at those times, however brief, there is a universal empathy that arises; a sharing in the feeling, and a longing to reach out and help.
The root words for compassion, this universal empathy, have to do with "feeling with;" and I remember reading somewhere that the word shares its root with the word for womb. Which means compassion holds within in it the tenderness a mother feels, sharing life with and caring for her unborn child, still so much a part of herself; another way of looking at the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
So I think of those silent tourists, stopping to gaze at this poor soul huddled in the fetal position, awash in prayer, and I feel hope: that the compassionate response is innate, and automatic -- ingrained in us from birth -- and that now, perhaps, we have another chance to get it right, to build bridges across the chasms that have split our country apart and have isolated us from the rest of our human family.
I pray, with all my heart, that this might come to pass. And yet, at the same time, I look at this figure and wonder: can there be any hope? Or have we let it go too long, so that we are now doomed to be buried under a mountain of our own making; a mountain of debt, a mountain of trash and plastic, an environmental holocaust... We have screwed up on so many levels. Will we be able to hold back the lava of it all? I just don't know.