Smells and Compassion

There are days when I smell gangrene on the subway. I mean this quite literally: gangrene, as in, human flesh decomposing bacterially on the F train. The smell causes other passengers to move away, or cover their noses with their scarves. Typically, the smell comes from someone on the train that got on at (say) East Broadway, pushing a shopping cart and wrapped in blankets. This happens often enough to call it out. It is not always gangrene, of course. You sometimes get the pervasive odor of the unwashed, the whiff of vagrancy, or the regurgitated excess of intoxication. But there are times when it smells like Death, and the animal in us senses this instinctively; of that, I am convinced. A diabetic condition gone terribly wrong? A festering wound? Both?

Even if you feel the kind of fleeting compassion that trains foster between passengers, the truth is, you are probably glad to get out of there when your stop comes around. Rotting flesh smells really bad — menacing and putrid and full of despair — and you want to run from it. What can you do against that, really, other than flee?

Recently, I read one of C.S. Lewis’ counterblasts to agnosticism, “The Screwtape Letters.” This is admittedly weird reading material and is not very zeitgeist at all, given Christopher Hitchens’ untimely demise (author of “Why God is Not Great”). That, and the fact that Lewis’ book is a bit of Christian propaganda. But rest assured, I read it for the literature value only, and maybe to see how Lewis would have approached the matter of the smell. Charity, devilish Uncle Screwtape would have us (not) believe, is a daily attitude shift that starts at home. Then, the Dalai Lama’s “The Power of Compassion” is a series of lectures on the subject of compassion that an old friend once sent my way. I certainly didn’t set out to write a book review, and find each book I’ve mentioned pleasing in its own way; I’m also not about to launch into a propaganda piece about compassion in general, and how we could use more of it. If anything, I have ambivalent views. I once set aside a Buddhist tract on the subject with frustration because it counseled us to “love our children a little less” and “love our spouses less” all in order to achieve a more transcendent kind of compassion: the kind accompanied by true detachment. That may be fine in the Himalayas, but it doesn’t resonate in NYC, where the intensity of every day experience is amped so high. Detachment itself seems like a goal that’s hard to achieve. Anyway, love seems to be the good stuff in the universe, so why not love your child or your spouse as much as you can, helplessly and without restraint and to distraction? And there’s still the conundrum of the smell on the train; reading doesn’t help with that, unless your book is so engrossing that you forget the stench between stops.

Last year ended on a high note for me. In December, Samosapedia was asked to speak at a conference in Jaipur called INK. My business partner Vikram gave a well-received talk, and attending the conference brought us inspiration and opportunity. Like TED, the INK Conference is the kind of venue that eludes categorization; you bump into exceptional people from different fields — scientists, dancers, artists, actors, humanitarians, entrepreneurs, musicians, technologists, doctors, and historians, amongst others — and then, after a day of talks, you go out on the town and experience synergy. At INK, I saw someone speak that gave me a radically new perspective on compassion. Just knowing someone like that even exists is inspiring.

I saw Prakash Amte being interviewed about his life. Prakash is a man who has dedicated his entire life to providing medical care for tribes in a poverty stricken part of India, in a way that verges on mythical. He set up shop as a doctor in an area so forgotten by time that human sacrifice was still practiced there by a malnourished populace, seeking cures from witch doctors. Amte and his wife slowly introduced modern medicine to the area, often uncovering extraordinary human courage coupled with devastating tragedy. There’s the story of a man attacked by a bear in the forest, who was carried through the forest for 48 hours till he reached the make-shift hospital. The man’s face was horribly mauled; his scalp hung off his skull like a loose bandana, and he had lost both his eyes. Amte cleaned up the wound, and stitched him up without anesthesia, giving the man over a hundred stitches in front of his family. The man didn’t even flinch or cry out once as his scalp was stitched back on, showing extraordinary tolerance to pain. He was sent back blind, but alive. And the story may well have ended there, with Amte as a local hero. But when Amte asked after the man’s fate some time later, he found he had died slowly of starvation. His blindness prevented him from feeding himself properly.

You can watch the talk to learn of how he performed a cataract surgery straight out of the manual for the first time, and how he helped someone recover their eyesight, or about what it is like to raise leopards, tigers, and lions, and watch your children play with poisonous snakes. He was asked by the interviewer why he feels no fear around wild animals; he answered with a word, predictable and saccharine, yet so affirming: “love.” I thought of sadhus in ashrams, mystical men surrounded by a coterie of big cats, radiating peace. I found it inspiring, and deeply moving. I glanced around the room, and saw a few damp eyes. This wasn’t just the love you give your children, or the love you give your spouse. It was something bigger than that, something that encompassed other beings, whether they were humans or animals or the environment you live in. Do a search for Prakash Amte on the web. One of the images that comes up is of him with his hand in a leopard’s mouth.

Towards the end of the talk, he was asked what he might demand of the audience. Here, you could imagine a solicitation for donations, but instead, all he asked was for us to visit places that give you perspective, like the remote forest village where he works. To go to places where people live so differently than you do, that you gain a bigger understanding of the world you live in, just by having having that experience.

Which I suppose brings me back to the F train. I had to come back there somehow, didn’t I? A city like New York is like Mumbai or Sao Paulo, maddening with contradictions. In the same city as last night’s venture capital event, someone with a gangrenous wound, huddled by themselves, isolated beyond recognition, is sharing my ride. Now I suppose I’ll gesticulate adamantly into the ether, saying we have to have a health care system that doesn’t let this happen. I didn’t promise to solve the problem; I’m just calling it out. But I know that by leaving the house, on my way to a place I’m supposed to get to, I’ve ventured to a place that gives me perspective. The year’s still young; taking the NYC subway might not be what Amte means, but it’s all I’ve got for you now, really. Every day gives you a chance to be “conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” DFW said that to a graduating class; I’m going to crib my New Year’s greeting to you from him, too: I wish you so much more than luck.

One thought on “Smells and Compassion”

  1. What a lovely post. You really should write (in public) more often. Not the same thing as Prakash Amte, but what you said in it reminded me of this TED MidAtlantic talk I saw late last year. http://tedxmidatlantic.com/2011-talks/ (the Erica Frenkel one). It’s about getting anesthesia to the developing world.

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