A few years ago, I found the secret to life while reporting at an Irish Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Bawnboy, Co. Cavan.
I saw a string of Buddhist prayer flags hanging from a clothesline that had the words “Om Mani Padme Hum” scrolled across different pieces of fabric, so I asked one of the residents living there what it meant.
It’s an ancient Tibetan Buddhist mantra, and although each syllable alone means something different, they all come together to loosely mean, “compassion in all things.”
Buddhists like to hang mantras like these on strings of flags, because they believe the wind can carry these positive words, and help to spread goodness and mercy throughout the world.
Ever since then, I’ve had a special affinity for that phrase. I often thought, if I ever had the moxy to get a tattoo, I would choose to write that mantra on my arm. It would be a permanent reminder of how to act towards others, no matter how frustrated I might be: with compassion, in all of my dealings.
The word compassion doesn’t really have much of a resonance to it; it sounds like a jumbled mixture of syllables that end up falling rather lightly, instead of deeply, on one’s ears.
But if you actually think about it, to show compassion is to act with the deepest, and most profound, form of selflessness.
I always tell my journalism students: don’t just listen to your sources, give them compassion.
Imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes. Are they fancy leather loafers in a men’s size 12? Do they perhaps squeeze their owner bit too tightly on both sides of his feet, but he has to wear them to keep up with his colleagues at his prestigious finance job?
Or are they the flat, ever-comfy kind, Birkenstocks or Crocks, which hug your feet just like the ad says they do, but that can only be worn in certain circumstances – like, during unemployment, or after work, or at certain creative jobs?
Are they even wearing shoes at all? What would it feel like to scuff your feet along the dusty, rocky earth in an Internal Displacement Camp, with a bloody conflict raging on just beyond the woods?
This past week, I witnessed an act of compassion from, hands down, one of the most unlikely sources.
I’ll give you a hint. He is a famous rapper whose lyrics include the following:
Don't you get it bitch, no one can hear you?
Now shut the f*** up and get what's comin to you
You were supposed to love me
NOW BLEED! BITCH BLEED!
BLEED! BITCH BLEED! BLEED!
Yes, those are the rage-filled lyrics of a song by Eminem about his ex-wife, called “Kim.”
This summer, Eminem was contacted by my friend, Dr. Carthage Carroll, about a patient suffering from Cystic Fibrosis, who considered himself Eminem’s biggest fan: David Smith.
David knew all of his songs, dyed his hair blonde at one stage, and even, got tattoos to match many of Eminem’s. His friends and other hospital employees talked about how most days, they’d see him traipsing around the hospital with his IPOD on, rapping along with Eminem.
He was 28 years old, and had suffered from CF since birth. It’s a disease that manifests itself in the form of very painful lung and gastric troubles, susceptibility to life-threatening infections(which thus limits their activities dramatically), and a projected lifespan of, at most, around 30 years old.
Moved by David’s story, Eminem excitedly made plans to meet with him during his trip to Dublin for this summer’s Oxegen music festival.
Sadly, David died the night before Eminem came to Dublin. His mother said that after the family laid David's body out in the house, she opened the windows so he could “hear” the music streaming in from the nearby festival.
Carthage was told that an emergency meeting was called by Eminem’s managers and handlers before he flew to Dublin, to ensure that nobody would tell him about David, because they knew that if he found out, he would be too distraught to travel anywhere beyond the comfort of his own room.
On the night of his Oxegen performance, Eminem made a special tribute to David, dedicating his “Sing for the Moment” remix to him. It was a fitting song, which included these lyrics:
“we sing for these kids, who don't have a thing
Except for a dream, and a f***in' rap magazine
Who post pin-up pictures on their walls all day long
Idolize they favorite rappers and know all they songs...
We're nothin' to you but we're the f**in' sh** in they eyes
That's why we seize the moment try to freeze it and own it, squeeze it and
Cause we consider these minutes golden”
This week, David’s family watched the video footage of this dedication, which Eminem specifically sent over for them. The hospital hosted a screening for the family, and Carthage asked me to film it, since Eminem had asked him to tape it for him.
He also sent a dozen or so photographs with hand-written notes and cds, to David’s closest friends and fellow patients. I saw encouraging words like “keep fighting” in one letter, and the sign off, “Your homie always, Eminem.”
One of the patients who received a letter and cd burst into tears at the sight of them. He talked about how much it meant to him that someone so busy and famous would take the time to write him a personal note, and how it would’ve meant the world to David to have received such a gift.
For him, David’s death was especially upsetting, because it was a reminder of the cold fate that has been looming overhead for years, and threatening him more and more with each passing day.
But, if even just for five minutes, Eminem’s little act of selflessness replaced that patient’s thoughts of fear and pain with giddiness and cheer. He may not have been able to spend time with David, but he absolutely brought hope into the hospital rooms of his closest friends and fellow sufferers.
Compassion isn’t just being kind to people; it is understanding where they came from, and what the road before them looks like. And then taking those factors into consideration when assessing their words or deeds, however devious they may seem.
We are all only humans, after all.
To be honest though, it often doesn’t pay us to be compassionate. People take advantage of our consideration, and mistake our kindness for weakness. Sometimes we give more than we get.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop giving; if you’re giving in order to receive, you’re not giving for the right reasons.
When we open our eyes, and our hearts, we can see that there is compassion in the rapper, beauty in the beast, and hope in the strangest of places.
I was riding a bus the other day, lost in thought, when an older man sitting next to me nudged my shoulder and pointed out the window. “Look, there’s a mapgie. Sitting there, like he’s just waiting for us. They’re always there when you look for them,” he said.
Maybe goodness and compassion are a little bit like those magpies in winter trees.
You may not expect to see them, but sometimes, if you look for them, you’ll see that they were there all along.
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