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Becoming Compassionate

How it is: Compassion Often can Flow from Life's Tragedies

© Moodville | - Plane on fire

By Catherine Flaxman

I love the title of this column. It takes me immediately into the present moment and is equally compelling as a title, a statement and, with slight alteration, as a broader question: "How Is It?" — not only here in Marin, but also in our country and in this precious world, where there is so much loss, instability and violence.

Last month marked the six-month anniversary of the school massacre at Sandy Hook. A few weeks after that dreadful day, the Jan. 8 issue of the IJ reported: "The arch is no more," informing us of the collapse and disappearance of the rock arch at Tennessee Beach in Tennessee Cove (which was miraculously captured in before and after photos), while two heartbreaking articles followed up on the tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., last summer. It's unlikely that most of us knew the names of these places, but now they are seared into the national consciousness, taking their lamentable position alongside Columbine and Virginia Tech.

From where we sit, in the apparent security of our homes, we can't begin to comprehend this kind of loss. It's the kind of thing that happens to other people, out there. But the loved ones of those killed at Aurora and Sandy Hook (as well as those who died in the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the explosion in West, Texas, the tornado in Moore, Okla., or the garment factory fire in Bangladesh) couldn't have fathomed that such an unthinkable thing would happen to them either. They went out that morning, fully expecting life to go on as usual, to see their children, spouses, parents, siblings and friends again. Just as we do, right now. In fact, we are so sure we will see them later that we often forget to say thank you or to look in their eyes.

What do these events have in common? And what is usual anyway?

Upon deeper reflection we may see that these stories share a connection with the thunderous and shocking display at the arch, where a family on a picnic at the beach witnessed the crumbling of a massive rock formation and the "now you see it, now you don't" phenomenon present in life and in the natural world. (As Albert Einstein said: "Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better.") If we look to nature, we see that it is cyclic. There is continual movement, and even violent change.

We all have had experiences when fate hands us a wake-up call: we have lost someone, faced a serious illness or accident, felt our identity crumble, experienced a reversal of fortune or even when we have been betrayed. On the human level, it takes courage to love, to risk and to remain open to life in the face of uncertainty and constant change. And yet when we can embrace this awareness, life becomes so sweet and every moment more precious.

We want to gather our loved ones, find our true purpose and express the joy of being alive. We somehow feel more connected, intuitively sensing what Charles Darwin said, that "... "We are all netted together," and what John Muir said, "Tug on anything in nature and you will find it connected to everything else."

Today, more than 5,000 violent deaths have occurred since that awful day in December. Another reminder of How It Is. Another good day to consider more of Einstein's wisdom: "Without deep reflection, one knows from daily life, that one exists for other people." When we know this to be true on a visceral level, the heart opens and our natural response to suffering is compassion. From compassion, our sense of humanity enlarges and gratitude, generosity and activism flow.

Catherine Flaxman is a Mill Valley resident. The IJ has been asking readers to share their stories of love, dating, parenting, marriage, friendship and other experiences for our How It Is column. All stories must not have been published in part or in its entirety previously. Send your stories of no more than 500 words to Please write How It Is in the subject line. The IJ reserves the right to edit them for publication. Please include your full name, address and a daytime phone number.



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