Pity or Compassion?

01bThis morning I was playing with Paz and twisted my neck. It hurts to sit at the computer. But I want to post today. So I decided to post something a little different – something I wrote 10 years ago that is very relevant to my thoughts and feelings right now.

I posted some photos on Facebook this week to honor my move to Botswana as a Peace Corps Volunteer ten years ago this month. 30I think the actual anniversary day is next week. Given my recent Metta retreat and my reflections on my Peace Corps Service, I decided to post the following email that I sent in October, 2004. I never think about compassion without also thinking of Maipelo. Of course some of you have read this before, but long ago. I hope you enjoy…

A few years ago I was scheduled to go to Kripalu for the East Meets East Yoga/Buddhism retreat.  I was going to North Carolina first to spend Thanksgiving on the beach and then to Kripalu.  However, on the drive down I began thinking about my Dad. Daddy80Daddy was in the hospital and I wasn’t sure if he would be coming home.

As I was thinking about Daddy it occurred to me how ironic it was that I was going to a spiritual retreat when spiritual work was right there waiting for me.  At that point I called Mom and told her I would be coming home right after the holiday.

While I believe that retreats are important for my well-being, I imagine I learned more in the 13 days I spent with Daddy and my family than I will learn in a lifetime of retreats.  I felt the same way spending 7 months with Mom.  And I am finding the same to be true here in Botswana.  Although I’ve recently realized that what I miss most about my life in the states are the retreats I used to go on; Omega workshops in New York, meditation and yoga retreats around DC, and international yoga retreats with Jane.  Burma 009I miss the discipline of meditation and yoga with a group.  I miss dedicating myself to a week or so of being with guides and teachers who so very generously share their own wisdom with me.  I really miss my teachers.

But this morning I realize (once again) that we are all teachers.  And I also realize (once again) that many of my most significant lessons are taught by those who are suffering, when I no longer fear the suffering.  Yesterday I met just such a teacher and this is what happened…

20 October 2004

Mma Ooke (my counterpart/boss) took me to meet her cousin, Maipelo Rampesu.  Maipelo is 34 years old.  She was diagnosed with tuberculosis just a few weeks ago.  She has also been diagnosed HIV+ and may very well have full blown AIDS.  She is weak, feels dizzy, and almost skeleton thin because she can’t digest the food she eats.

When we first walked into her bedroom I wondered how Maipelo felt about my being there; a white stranger looking down at her lying on her bed.  Her Mother and Father were there and most of the conversation was in Setswana which I didn’t understand.  Mma Ooke told Maipelo who I was.  They talked a little bit and then Mma shared with me that Maipelo had gone to the clinic to have her blood taken to test her CD4 count.  I don’t really remember what the CD4 count is.  I fumble along through this, the way I fumbled through Mom’s chemotherapy; at some point I could talk about platelet counts as well as any nurse.  I imagine in time I’ll know as much about CD4 counts.

Maipelo gave Mma Ooke her record from the clinic and motioned she wanted me to look at it as well.  The CD4 test results won’t be back for another two weeks. Until the clinic has the results, they won’t put Maipelo on ARV’s.  She is on no medication or under any special treatment for HIV.  However, she is taking medication for her TB.  At this point she is too weak to walk to the clinic to be seen by a nurse, although it is at most only a couple of kilometers away.  Her family doesn’t have a car.  I just heard that her Mother will walk to the clinic tomorrow to pick up her TB medication.

There is a can of Ensure near her bed, milk, fruit juice, & a jar of Vaseline.  I look around the room and notice the poverty.  Bed linens are old and torn.  They are not very clean.  The cement walls are barren.   Her mattress lies on the floor.  Her bedroom door opens to the outside but there is no air circulation.  There is a bug on the floor.  I look at Maipelo and notice how thin her face is.  I begin to feel pity for her.

I don’t like the feeling of pity.  Like so many feelings, I believe it comes from a place of fear.  I usually feel emotions in my body… and this time the pity was located in my solar plexus as a dull ache.  I felt tears welling in my eyes.  I thought to myself, “Be strong!  Maipelo doesn’t want my pity.  I can’t let her see what I am feeling.” So I began to think about what she might want me to feel.  I looked into her eyes and opened my heart and silently asked the question, “What do you want from me?”  And after a few moments I noticed that I was feeling enormous compassion.  Compassion!

With compassion the poverty disappeared.  I suddenly saw only a woman; frail, hot, sick.  What had been fearful (a sunken face) was now a beautiful face with an exquisite bone structure.  I began to notice a great deal of beauty in her… her left brown breast was exposed and I noticed the stretch marks left from giving life to her two children.  I thought of how those marks tell part of her story.  And then I noticed her slender arms and hands; her eyes.

I immediately thought, “I want to do something for Maipelo, but what?”  I can’t make her well.  I can’t save the world.  But I can create a moment.  And didn’t someone say that life is just a series of moments?

I thought about my new flavored lip balm from Shirley A.  It is a very nice Bath & Body Shop lip balm.  She sent me two flavors and I just love both.  I remembered I had a tube in my purse.  And I began to think how nice that lip balm would be for Maipelo.  And then I began a dialog in my head…

Damn!  It’s my favorite lip balm.  In fact, (I was thinking) I put three tubes of Chapstick in a drawer, only to use if no one sent the good stuff.  So there are three tubes of chapstick and a tube of the Bath & Body stuff at home – four tubes of lip balm plus the tube in my purse!… but should I really give this woman the tube in my purse?  And that was the thought that stopped my breath and my thinking.

I decided to just breathe in compassion.  I breathed in Maipelo’s essence.  I breathed in the love I feel for every living being.  And then I let my body move with feeling, rather than thought.  I pulled out my lip balm and said, “I want to give you something.”  I gave her the tube and she smiled.  I showed her how to open it and told her I wanted her to have it.

Maipelo opened the tube (she was having difficulty but didn’t want my help).  She put it on her lips, licked them, and a beautiful smile appeared, “It taste sweet like tea.”  “It does taste good and it will keep your lips moist,” I said.  We began speaking to one another in English.  She told me a little about herself and introduced me to her parents.  A little later her Mother left the room and then returned with some corn in a traditional basket.  She handed the corn to Mma Ooke who was delighted and said she would also cook some for me.  But Maipelo wouldn’t hear of it.  She demanded the basket of corn be given to her so she could hand it to me, her new friend.  There was after all, plenty of corn for both myself and Mma Ooke.

We left shortly after we were presented this very generous gift.  As we walked away I thought about how one moment creates a series of moments.  In the book Conversations with God we are reminded that, “What we conceive we create, what we create we experience, what we experience we conceive.”  And on that day with Maipelo, I witnessed again that I create my own reality – pity or compassion is my choice – changing a moment is my choice – what I conceive, create, experience, and conceive are all my choice!

I told Mma Ooke that I would like to go back often, whenever she visits.  Who knows, maybe I’ll eventually go by myself.  I want so much to watch Maipelo’s condition improve.  I know she will never be well but I also know that with the right care, treatment, and lifestyle, Maipelo may live to watch her babies grow into adults.  And that is my prayer for Maipelo.  My prayer and my blessing.  And Maipelo herself, my new teacher, is her blessing to me.

Love & Peace,


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One Response to Pity or Compassion?

  1. Samantha says:

    So powerful!!

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