I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten teary-eyed at my desk. It’s a lot, and this is why: A big chunk of my time at the Shambhala Sun involves reading submissions—pages and pages of both solicited and unsolicited work—and much of it ranges from moving to heart-wrenching. People send in true stories about getting sick; getting old; losing their son or mother; losing themselves to depression; being addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling; being abused, living through war; suffering poverty. Suffering everything imaginable.
So, at the end of each day, I am very much aware that the human condition is sad and uncertain; tragedies large and small can strike any of us, at any time. This makes me appreciate my life more—all the opportunities I have, my health, my friends and family. And it makes me appreciate others more. At the mall, at the doctor’s, walking home from work, I am a little more open to thinking about the strangers right in front me as people with their own true story and often difficult lives.
But there’s more. The submissions that cross my desk are not simply sob stories to make us feel grateful for our perhaps not-so-bad lot. Rather, almost invariably, the submissions are laced with hope, appreciation, mindfulness, compassion—some acknowledgement that among all the hurts in this world, there is something beautiful. Maybe this is what I find the most moving; despite what sometimes looks like dismal odds, people are trying to make their world and the lives of others better. This is what’s between the lines of the pieces I read: every single one of us has the capacity to effect inner and outer change. The stories serve as inspiration.
The Shambhala Sun produces six issues a year, only enough to publish a fraction of the material people send us. But I think this issue gives a very good taste of the emotional terrain that I am talking about. Misha Becker’s story, “Age-Old Affinity,” offers an intimate look at an elderly dying woman and a baby. It is, to put it mildly, sad to watch a life unravel, and sad to be reminded that that’s the future for all of us—even dimpled newborns. Yet at the same time, it’s heartwarming to see that we can connect with another person at any and all points in our lives, and that every generation has its babies—its hope for the future.
In “Dead Like Me,” Ira Sukrungruang also tackles the inevitability of death, but his approach has a far different flavor, by turns deadly funny and poignant. I can relate to the author’s middle-of-the-night fears, his wondering when and how and why he’ll pass away, and what will happen after that. But what I appreciate most is the peace Sukrungruang finally rests in. He doesn’t have any of the answers and, for now, that’s enough.
Lin Jensen’s story, “Stand by Me,” is about Leo, a schoolyard bully the author once knew—and disliked and feared. Leo was unpredictable, violent, and not very bright. But the young Jensen gets a lesson in Leo’s humanity—through learning Leo’s own heartbreaking true story—and he comes to realize that to survive with any sort of decency, we must clear a path in our hearts that reaches all the way into the hearts of people we do not even like. That lesson serves Jensen today in his work as a prison chaplain.
Compassion has traditionally been the concern of spirituality and morality, but now science and psychology are acknowledging its importance. In “Survival of the Kindest,”Paul Ekman argues that even Charles Darwin did not have the ruthless view of human nature that has been attributed to him. Rather, Darwin believed that altruism plays a key role in the lives of both humans and other animals. That view is taken up by contemporary scientists, including Ekman himself, who see that more compassion is vital to humanity’s future and look for proven ways to create a more compassionate world.
In “The Cosmos Wakes Up,” David Loy offers a Buddhist take on evolution. On how, over the course of fourteen billion years, a miracle has taken place: simple hydrogen has transformed into giraffes and roses.
It has also transformed into the writers out there who are sharing their stories with us. I’m so thankful for all their emails and envelopes, for their courage and compassion, and I can’t help but think that, little by little, those stories in their turn will help transform our world.