Ordinary People, Miraculous Moments of Compassion
Earlier this week, Jon Stewart interviewed Malala Yousafzai on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. For those who don’t know, Malala is a 16-year-old Pakistani girl who the Taliban shot in the head at point blank range two years ago for advocating education for girls. She has since made a full recovery, written a book entitled I Am Malala, and started a foundation to raise money and resources to educate girls who do not have access to education.
During this interview, Stewart asked Malala about what she thought when she first learned that the Taliban had put a price on her head. She said:
I thought, "If he [the assassin] comes, what would you do, Malala?" And then I would reply to myself, “just take a shoe and hit him.” But then I said, If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there will be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.” And then I'll tell him how important education is, and that I even want education for your children as well. And I would tell him, “that's what I want to tell you, now do what you want."
This kind of profundity does not come along every day, and especially not from 16-year-olds recovering from bullet wounds to the head and neck. In a world where revenge and hatred seem to be the rules of the day, how is it that we can even find one instance of this kind of compassion for one who has inflicted such harm?
Oddly enough, if we look, we can even find another instance, right here in our country, and in fact, in my very own city. Prabhjot Singh, an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and also a resident in internal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, was recently assaulted near the northern end of Central Park in Manhattan by a group of teenagers and young men who mistook his Sikh turban and beard as Muslim garb.
Singh was subject to a bevy of punches and kicks as he lay helpless on the ground. According to police and eyewitness reports, the assailants shouted epithets such as “Osama” and “terrorist.” He was badly beaten and his jaw fractured, although his injuries might have been much worse had pedestrians not intervened, scattering the young men, and allowing Singh to receive medical attention.
And what was Singh’s response?
Everyone would have totally understood if he had been angry. Or depressed. Or scared. Or reticent about continuing to live in the neighborhood. But Singh appears to embody none of those emotions. Rather, he wrote:
People keep asking me what it feels like to have been assaulted in a hate crime. Honestly, I can't come up with a better response than simply "gratitude."
I'm thankful for a few reasons. If they had attacked me any more violently, I may not be awake right now to tell my story. If they had attacked me even half an hour earlier, they would have harmed my wife and one-year-old son. And if they had attacked me anywhere else, I may not have had bystanders there to save me.
Singh said that he wants to continue living in the Morningside Heights neighborhood in which this incident occurred, that it hasn’t soured him on life or on the community. He said that he has seen much worse, especially in his hospital experience, and he has also spent many years writing on hate crimes.
Even more important to me than my attackers being caught is that they are taught. My tradition teaches me to value justice and accountability, and it also teaches me love, compassion and understanding. It's a tough situation. I care about the people in my local community. I want the streets to be safe for my young son, but at the same time, I am not comfortable with the idea of putting more young teenagers from my neighborhood on the fast track to incarceration. This incident, while unfortunate, can help initiate a local conversation to create greater understanding within the community.
My wife and I plan to raise our son in this same Harlem neighborhood, and I can't help but see the kids who assaulted me as somehow linked to him. In a hostile world, could he too be driven to such action? Could he too feel such hate?
My hope is no. My hope is that our family continues to be a part of this neighborhood, from visiting parks and playgrounds to building relationships through our work. I believe this will bring about positive change that strengthens us through our diversity.
The beauty of Singh’s words, as well as those of Malala Yousafzai shows us that while hell may be bursting out all around us, especially in Congress, we still have people in this world—ordinary people, not just the Pope or the Dalai Lama—who can model compassion for us in situations where we might want violence and revenge. These are the people who can teach us how to make our world a better place. These ordinary people are the founts of hope. And maybe one day we can join them when instead of hatred, violence, jealousy, and revenge, we choose gratitude, understanding, and compassion.
-- Sarah Kass