The awful of us

Photograph of a gargoyle by Terry Barrett

I sat in my chair reading about the concept of karma after finishing a 6-week course taught by Pema Chodron. It’s not a new concept and I felt a bit arrogant, sort of like I know this, but then I read:

“When you feel you are being harmed by someone, remember that the harm that person may be inflicting on you (or someone dear to you) is the direct result of you yourself having harmed others in the past (p. 156).”

The thought of that made me pause. I felt something shift inside of me.

For a long time, I've understood the karmic concept. But when I read those words I personally felt its meaning. I suddenly saw—no, I felt—my deepest challenges as the hurt I’ve caused. 

Like coming up for air after being underwater to the point of drowning, I let out a wail. In my wail, I thought, "I must have been a tiger who ate children." The feeling compounded later that day when I learned of the alligator that took a boy from the shore at nearby Disney World in Orlando while the parents watched.

I saw myself as the alligator.

Having once lost my boy swung like a pendulum to me hurting a child.

In the middle of the night, dread came again. I went to my cushion.

For hours I tonglen-breathed in the pain of those parents, the pain of physical harm to a young being, and my pain of awareness about the hurts I’ve caused. For each in-breath, I breathed out relief, then comfort. I breathed in pain and breathed out patience for all. I breathed in hurt and breathed out tenderness to the hurt and the hurters.

My drowning gulps softened into rhythmic breaths that carried and calmed me.

I remained sitting till a glimmer of dawn.

The horrid feelings melted and passed.

Do you know what was left?

This seems incredulous but I felt connected to and compassion for that alligator, which says something because I know the loss of my own child who died unexpectedly ten years ago. I also have incurable cancer, so I realize a little more about mortality and impermanence. I understand a bit more about the pain of being consumed.

Today I better know the losses I've caused. Not in a blaming or punishing myself or others way. No, not that. Rather as a deeper understanding of others' sufferings through my own experiences.

I am hurt and I am a hurter. (What I mean in saying "I'm a hurter" is that though I aspire to no harm, I know that when I walk on the grass, likely, insects are harmed.) I believe all of us—yes, all of us from a long view are the alligator. And, we are the child, and we are the parents of that child.

With gratitude for this breakthrough, I have more clarity about what it means to be patient while learning from tough experiences and the commitment it takes to become less reactive and not overcome by anger, hatred, and despair. Sitting with my feelings, allowing them, and eventually analyzing them brings insight to awfulness, mine, and others’. It seems unfathomable to me, but because of this insight, my mind and heart soften towards all living beings. 


Even those who shoot, run over, bomb, and behead. Writing this post shows that it is possible to learn, transform, and use painful experiences to understand others.