Story: “What the Turtle Taught Theodore” By Gary Kowalski
Theodore Parker was born 1810 and died in 1860. In his autobiography, Theodore Parker relates that as a child, four or five years old, living on a farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts he was walking through the fields one day absent-mindedly swinging a stick through the tall grass. This was many years ago, in the days before the Civil War. It was summertime. He stopped to watch the water bubble along a creek. Then he noticed a turtle sunning itself on a rock.
He’d seen other boys use their sticks to hit turtles and other animals. It was part of what children thought was fun, just as some children still like to bully and hit those who are weaker than themselves. Often children, and grown-ups too, are copycats — mimicking the behavior of others who seem bigger or stronger than themselves. Young Theodore wanted to be like the other, older boys he’d seen, so he raised his stick into the air, taking aim and preparing to knock the turtle into the water.
Then something stopped him. Something seemed wrong about the situation. He looked again at the turtle, quiet, peaceful, enjoying the summer day just as he liked to feel the warmth and light of the sun. Had the turtle ever done him any harm? Was the turtle so different than himself? Slowly he lowered his stick and walked home, thinking about what had happened.
When he arrived home, his mother was there to greet him, and he told her about the incident. She listened carefully to Theodore, and listened especially carefully when he related how some strange force inside had stopped him from hitting the little animal. “Theodore,” she said, “that force inside you was the voice of conscience. Always pay attention to it. Always follow what your conscience tells you. It’s your moral compass that points you in the right direction. And if you honor your conscience, you’ll never go wrong in this world.”
Theodore Parker grew up to become a Unitarian minister, in fact one of the greatest leaders our faith has ever known. He became a champion of the defenseless who needed defending. He was a hero in the fight to end slavery in our country. He prayed to “Father and Mother God” and fought for women’s equality and their right to vote. He and his wife never had children of their own — but he felt a sense of kinship with the whole family of creation, people of all genders and races who had been made in the image of the holy. And it all started one summer day when he was just a child — a child who saw a turtle and decided to do what was right.
For those young and young at heart, we have crayons and a picture of a turtle for you to color, in order to remember young Theodore by.
I didn’t want to forget that Valentine’s Day just passed us by. So I was looking for some Valentine’s Day cards that might be meaningful to Unitarian Universalists. Here's one I came across: "Will you join the committee of my heart?"
And on NPR--all Unitarian Universalists listen to NPR right--I heard about this Islamic woman, Taz Ahmed, who is making Valentine cards for Millennials. Here are some of hers. “Cupid dropped an airstrike on my heart.” “I’d never Muslim ban you from my heart.” “Wanna roleplay TSA.” And my favorite, “Call your representative…then call me.”
Let’s get back to compassion and resilience. To refresh our memory of the definition that we’re working with: resilience is being able to spring back emotionally after suffering through difficult and stressful times in one's life. And compassion is the how we show others that we wish them to be free of suffering.
When I was a chaplain in a Houston area hospital, I learned more about compassion and resilience than I could have ever imagined. I was on-call late one night and received a page, yes we still had pagers, to go up to the cardiac unit. When I arrived I went straight to the nurse’s station to find out who was in need. The nurse told me that an African American woman was coding over and over again—her heart stopping—and the staff was required to bring her back to life over and over again. The nurse was quite distressed. She said the family demanded that the staff bring the woman back to life each time she coded. At that moment, I heard another code go off and watched the staff run to the woman’s room, beat on her chest—I learned later breaking some of her ribs—then providing a shock to the heart. I heard the family say something like, “She can’t die. She can’t die. Don’t let her die.”
After this chaos settled down, the nurse told me that the family didn’t trust the doctors and nurses to adequately treat their mother, this woman, because she was poor and black. They were convinced that she was not getting the best treatment and that is why she was dying. The staff asked me to talk to the family—five adults, three teenagers, and one toddler. The five adults were her children, the teenagers and toddler her grandchildren.
I hesitantly went over and asked if I could talk to them. I felt I was in over my head. What could I—a newbie chaplain on my first overnight on-call-- offer this family? So I simply started by asking them their names and their mother’s name. As we introduced ourselves, I guided them to a room down the hall. I let them talk, tell me about their distrust of the doctors and hospitals, then they talked about believing it was not their mother’s time to die. Soon they were telling me that they didn’t know how they would live without her. I asked them to tell me stories about her. And each had wonderful stories, we talked for about an hour, about how she had kept them safe from the gangs, helped them get a good education, took care of the grandchildren. She was the only parent they knew. She was only person in their lives who showed them unconditional love—those are my words, not theirs, but I could tell that is what they were saying through their stories. And amazingly enough, the mother didn’t code during that time.
After they started to wind down, I asked them what they wanted to do. It seems no-one had asked them before. All the staff had been doing was telling them what was happening and that the family needed to stop making the staff revive her and let her go. I don’t think poorly of the staff; they too were under great stress, with the family accusing them of not taking adequate care of their mother. I realized that the staff would also need some time with a chaplain after the family had some closure.
The interesting thing was after I asked them what they wanted, they asked me what I thought they should do? Well, I said I couldn’t tell them, but I wondered what they wanted to say to their mother, what they needed to tell her, and if they wanted to pray with their mother. There was a sense of relief that came over the family as I said this, as well as tears. Not hysterical tears like the ones that had been flowing before, but tears of relief, of release.
They thought about it and said yes they had some things to say and did want to pray with their mother. So together we went into their mother’s room. I turned down the lights. I lit a candle. I guided the family around the bed, circling their mother. I started with telling their mother that the family was with her and they wanted to talk. One by one, they hesitantly did. When the talking ended, I began a prayer and let each family member add to it in their own way. Then I asked if the family was ready to say goodbye. A rush of tears and then they all nodded their heads yes.
A few minutes after the family left, the woman passed away peacefully.
This experience has stayed with me all these years. How a little compassion and empathy can go a long way to help someone experience the path to resilience. I did nothing miraculous. Mostly what they needed was someone to listen, feel their pain, and encourage them to find a path forward for themselves.
Compassion given made an impact on this family, left me with an experience that still guides my actions, and also helped the staff feel some relief as well. The staff did not want to continue prolonging this woman’s life, when they knew they were just lengthening her suffering.
In this faith community, one of the Principles we affirm is justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. So often we focus on the justice and equity part of that Principle, wanting others to be treated justly or equitably. But sometimes that doesn’t happen and, my friends, suffering is not something that is just or equitable. Suffering comes to us all. And compassion and empathy, which I believe are connected, are qualities we can cultivate to lessen the impact of suffering not only on others, but on ourselves as well.
Think back on the story of Theodore Parker and the turtle. Parker by stopping himself from the destructive behavior he saw exhibited by others, and then reflecting with his own conscience on his relationship with the turtle, another living thing, felt within himself empathy for this little creature and treated the turtle with compassion, or at the very least did not hurt the turtle. Sometimes that’s what compassion looks like in young children. If you can help at least don’t hurt. Parker wrote about this event in his life and wrote that it was foundational to his life, future, his work in the world, his prayers and his preaching. He experienced from that moment on a sense of kinship with the whole family of creation, including people of all genders and races all who were made in the image of the holy.
Parker is one of my favorite forebears. His life and his writings teach me each time I read them. They remind me to treat all people and creatures as if they are a spark of the divine. They remind me to have empathy and compassion for all that exists on this planet and this planet itself. For me, thinking of all creation as a spark of the divine helps me stop, as Parker did before using that stick, and reflect on the best way to treat those around me, and to treat them all with respect, dignity, worth, empathy, and compassion.
Let me share a part of one of Parker’s prayers: O Thou Infinite Power, whom [humans] call by varying names, but whose grandeur and whose love no name expresses and no words can tell… [yet whose being is] in every star that flowers above and every flower that flames beneath…We thank thee for the primal virtues which shine aloft as stars, and not less for the charities which heal and soothe and bless, and are scattered at [our] living feet as flowers. We bless thee for the great truths which have come down to us on the sounding way through the ages, encouraging and strengthening men [and women]. We thank thee for the poets and prophets and mighty men [and women] of thought and piety, who spoke as they were moved… and brought truth to hu[mankind]; we thank thee that in our own day, not less, thy spirit still works with the children [of humanity]… May we learn what is right and…with all the strength that is in us…love our brothers [and sisters] as we love ourselves, and grow [in this]constantly… May we grow wiser and more just, be filled with more loving-kindness to our brother men [and sister women], and have a heartier and holier love…May no success in this world’s affairs ever harden our hearts, but make us more noble and more generous, and may the world’s sorrow and sickness and grief and disappointment and loss only rouse up the better soul that is in us ...”
Let that sink in. Each time I read this, I find things I need to remember to do in my life, and I experience new awarenesses. I am reminded of my ministerial aspirations. I remember to stop and notice the beauty all around me and recall again my interconnectedness with all creation. And I remember to treat all creation as holy. Treating creation as holy, to me, means that I need to practice compassion and empathy every day with all creation.
Compassion and resilience aren’t just gifts that you give to others. It is important to offer compassion and love to yourself as a regular spiritual practice. This builds resilience and reinforces our ability to be compassionate to others. Psychotherapist Linda Graham, MFT ( Mental Health.net--Compassion is Healing — Empathy is "Perspective Taking") wrote: “Compassion is one of a dozen positive, pro-social emotions that have been studied by behavioral scientists as well as neuroscientists for the last 20 years, along with gratitude, kindness, generosity, joy, awe, delight, and love. Self-compassion is especially potent because it activates the care-giving system [within us] and moves us to act, care, and protect [others].” She went on: “Resilience is a direct outcome of the practice [of compassion]. More compassion leads to more resilience.”
We affirm that every person is important, of worth and dignity and I would say sacred. Accepting this, let us renew our pledge to live out those sacred and humane teachings that draw us toward compassion and love in ever-widening circles of care. But first let’s start with ourselves. So my friends I leave you with a meditation of love, compassion, and peace. I have been using this meditation each night for the past year and a half. It is simply breathing in as I say to myself “I breathe in love and compassion” and when I breathe out, saying to myself, “I breathe out peace.”