I have never seen myself as a judgmental person.
I thought, in general, I was a ‘live and let live’ type of gal. I didn’t question why people do the things they do – unless it negatively affected me, of course. I thought I was open to all people regardless of their gender, gender identification, race, religious beliefs, economic status, dietary choices. In fact, I celebrated our differences – I have always been eager to learn about someone’s cultural background.
I was lying to myself. A 10 day trip to Nepal with the Himalayan Writer’s Workshop changed everything.
Asia was new to me. I’ve traveled all over Europe, the Caribbean, to New Zealand, so I was eager to go to Nepal – the birthplace of Buddhism. I started telling myself a story about what it was going to be like. I knew that water out of the tap, fresh fruit and vegetables with a skin, and meat could make me very sick. I knew there would be poverty, crowded city streets, pollution. I knew there was a lot that I couldn’t possibly prepare for, but, as Dr. Marissa and some of her friends kept whispering in my ears, I wanted to go in with an open mind and heart, to experience this place. I wanted to be shocked, woken up from the complacency of middle class, first world living. I got exactly what I wanted, but not in the way you might expect.
The first leper showed up about 10 minutes after leaving the Kathmandu airport. My taxi was stopped in crazy traffic that manages to meander the roads without the benefit of lanes or traffic lights. It was the perfect opportunity for beggars to approach vehicles. He had long gray and white hair dangling, dirty and scant, from his scalp, a mustache and beard of the same condition. His skin was dark brown, leathery. His right arm ended abruptly about halfway to his missing elbow. This is what leprosy does. He rapped against the window with his remaining hand, as dark and mangled as a tree branch, looking for money. I hadn’t even had time to change money, but quickly turned on my New York-raised blinders. You know, the blinders that cut off your peripheral vision, so you can’t see the homeless people with their cups and their hands outstretched, that make it easier to walk by without giving them anything to buy alcohol or drugs with.
In Kathmandu, it isn’t the drugs and alcohol you can’t feed, it’s the volume of demand.
Even through my New York blinders, I could see children not older than 3 and 4, arms outstretched, begging for a few rupees. One of our guides, an American who lives most of the year in Kathmandu, offered the guideline that the ones without limbs or deformities should get first priority because Nepal does not have programs to care for them. They are the outcast, the untouchables and their sole source of support is what they get from begging. But the number of Nepalis with deformities is overwhelming, and the dirty little faces with the big, soulful eyes is burned into memory.
As a Buddhist, it is my vow to have compassion for all sentient beings. Many times, we have to exercise compassion when it doesn’t feel comfortable, when there is no reward for having done it. Reward isn’t the goal anyway, but compassion doesn’t mean responding to every request for money by digging into our purses. It can be in the form of prayer, conversation, an offering of food. But in Nepal, my heart rotted away in my chest for all of the need. This cloud of judgment started to form over my head. Of them for asking, for being so numerous. Of myself, for not filling empty hands every time one entered my crosshairs. I got frustrated. I was tired of the experience of being in Nepal. I didn’t want one more uncomfortable thing to happen. I was done. Me. The Buddhist. The World Traveler. The one who wanted to be shaken up.
I wish I could say that was when the epiphany came, that I opened my eyes to my own shit and embraced the experience, cloud of judgment and all, and that I found a balance. I didn’t. I was tired of hard beds and curried food, flies, water I couldn’t drink, being dusty all the time. The true epiphany didn’t come until I had been home a couple of days, in suburban Maryland, back to my own life.
Not a day after my return home, a friend was upset and she wanted me to listen, to be sympathetic to her struggle. Through the haze of jetlag, I tried to listen and be supportive, but I judged her. Didn’t she know how small her problems were compared to that of the lepers of Nepal?? Her problems were about her personal comfort, her happiness. They were so insignificant compared to what I had just been exposed to, the struggle for life itself. I told her I was sorry she was feeling bad, but I couldn’t really engage the struggle – sorry…
It happened when I was stopped at a traffic light. On the corner stood a man holding a cardboard sign. I didn’t bother to read it. He was wearing a baseball cap, sunglasses, a trimmed beard and mustache. His clothes and work boots were clean. What a joke, I thought. Who’s this guy, trying to get out of holding a job by standing on a corner waiting for handouts?! He doesn’t know what suffering is. He could do 1,000 jobs that I couldn’t do. He could go to Social Services. I’m sure he’s got friends and family. Look how clean he is! He has no idea how bad the homeless have it in Nepal! If he only knew, he’d be ashamed of himself.
WOW… Who the hell am I?!
The blinding lightning flash of epiphany struck me to my core. I don’t know his story, I didn’t even bother to read his sign! Where’s the rule book on what a homeless person is supposed to look like to be worthy of a donation? What must it feel like that first time you go out onto a street corner to panhandle? What was going through his mind the first time he wrote his sign? Was it surreal to be standing at that busy light, waiting for someone to not ignore him and roll down their window? What did he tell his kids and wife he was doing for money – did they know the truth?
While I’m at it, what the hell kind of friend am I, that I blew off my friend’s pain? Is her pain any less real just because she didn’t see the suffering I saw in Nepal? She was having a bad day, she was looking for comfort, for compassion, and I turned my nose up at her because her suffering didn’t fit my new paradigm of what REAL suffering looks like.
There I was, comparing suffering that lies beneath a shiny, thin veneer here in the US, with the suffering in Nepal that is blatant, naked, in your face. Is one really worse than the other? Is the suffering here in the US actually worse than that in Nepal, because we look good from the outside, all the while our insides are turned inside out? Or worse, things are going great – we have a dream job, dream house, a couple of cars in the garage, 4 star dining every day – and it’s never enough. Or there’s loneliness and separation. No one wins the game of who’s suffering the most. We are all suffering and love and compassion for each other really is the only way to let go of judgment and look after each other. And we REALLY need to look after each other!!
Shame on me.
The truth I uncovered in Nepal was less about what suffering is or isn’t, but how I judge it and the people who experience it. I AM a judgmental person. I create narratives for everyone I encounter based on some superficial, external marker, and I design my whole interaction with them around a scenario. The truth is that I needed to not only be open to the experience, but open to what I was going to learn about myself. I get it now.
I will never take fresh, potable water out of the tap or fresh fruit and vegetables for granted again. I am taking the blinders off to what’s going on in my periphery, and I will work every day to let go of judgment – of others and of myself.