I want to warn you that this newsletter is not as upbeat as my regulars. I was feeling reflective this month, as I had a chance to think about compassion from a couple different angles. I was doing some presentations in rural Saskatchewan, and while driving at night, I hit a coyote. He just appeared, and though I swerved a bit, I didn't have much of a chance. Or rather, he didn't have much of a chance. Better to hit an animal than roll the car, of course.
Coyotes are beautiful animals. I think they'd be sort of like big wild dogs - great to cuddle with. Well, great except for the whole “wild” part. And the teeth. And the “carnivorous” bit. Right. So no cuddling. Beautiful in the wild, they shall remain. And of course I know that coyotes and other animals get killed all the time. Coyotes kill and eat a lot of other animals too - even cute little bunnies! But even so, I felt like garbage. My eyes actually started to tear-up. Coyotes feel pain too, I figure.
Sadly, the next night, I heard some terrible news. An old high school friend, Chanelle, and her fiancé had been killed – struck by an intoxicated 18-year old driver while crossing at a crosswalk in Vancouver. I found my mind wandering after that, recalling those “close calls” when I'd not been paying full attention: Tired driving. The occasional text message (which I've now decided not to do, ever, while driving). GPS fiddling. Rushing in a school zone. Usually careless or aggressive driving is self-centered, and people think only of others after the damage is done. Many, myself included, have made the commitment never to drive drunk, but perhaps our commitment should be more inclusive to other, equally dangerous distractions? That would be compassion in practice.
A tragedy often makes people think about things from a different perspective. It occurred to me that it's easy to feel compassion for the families involved, but it's easy to overlook feeling compassionate for the drunk driver. How was he feeling? And how is he feeling now? Can you imagine what it would be like to be him? Compassion is about being moved by the pain of others. And pain no doubt exists on both sides of that windshield. If she could, what would Chanelle say to him? We'll never know, but I have an idea because of what she said to me years ago.
While I had never been super-close with Chanelle, she was in a play I had directed, and in fact, she had been a passenger in my car when I was in an accident in my final year of high school. Too slow to respond, I rear-ended a jeep stopped for an oncoming school bus. No one was hurt, but my car needed $1800 of work to replace the crumpled hood. I had put other people, including Chanelle, in real danger. Sitting afterwards, shamed and frazzled, as the school bus of gaping kids stared on, I have but one clear memory: Chanelle turned to me and said, without a hint of blame or accusation, “Joel, I'm so sorry.” Chanelle had a gift for empathy. What would you have said to me? What would you say to the drunk driver?
It wasn't a busy road in Saskatchewan (because it was Saskatchewan!), so I pulled a U-Turn to go back and just look - I obviously couldn't un-hit the coyote, but I wanted to face what I'd done. The coyote wasn't dead, and he had made his way off the road, though he didn't exactly have a bounce in his step. Probably he had a broken shoulder or leg, I figured. I half-way forgave myself, something I'm not sure I'd be able to do if that coyote had been a person. Obviously hitting a coyote is different than hitting a person, so please don't think that I'm making excuses for the negligence (and idiocy) of the driver who hit Chanelle. I'm not. But he'll have his own U-Turn to make and a lot to face up to when he makes it. I'd imagine he will need a lifetime of professional help.
I find it hard not to get angry when I think about it, and I think that's a human reaction. But we know that anger doesn't help anything; it's wasted energy. I think Chanelle would have put her focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment. She was going through school for social work - she wanted to give back to those who needed it (she suffered from shyness and an eating disorder as a child). Of course justice is important, but that's for the courts. I'm interested in how you would respond. I think Chanelle would have put her energy into compassion rather than anger. I think maybe we'd be wise to learn from Chanelle in that sense. What do you think?
March 12, 2009
“You don't have to accept the invitation to get angry. Instead, practice forgiveness, empathy and encouragement.”
- Dan Fallon
Joel Hilchey speaks and facilitates workshops across North America, empowering students, educators & business leaders who want to build stronger, more positive teams and communities. Contact him by phone at 1-877-487-5635 or check him out online at www.joelhilchey.com!
RIDDLE: Upon southwest streets, a tough bird to see, not even the wiley can catch up with me. What am I?
Dr. Aneez Mohammad (31) & Chanelle Morgan (25), in an almost unbelievably tragic tale, were killed in a hit-and-run, just an hour after becoming engaged at dinner on February 7, 2009. The drunk, 18-year old driver left his female passengers (aged 14 and 16) in the stolen Buick SUV (stolen in that it was taken without permission), ran from the scene of the accident, jumped into a creek, and was tracked by police dogs and arrested. Want more of the story? Get it here.
This guy, incidentally, does not sound like a person I'd generally choose as a friend, but on the other hand, it seems like maybe he could have used a few more positive role models in his life.
Neglect doesn't make problems vanish. There are deeper societal support and socialization issues here.