(thanks for the inspiration JY)
He stood up as tall as he could, coming up barely past my shoulder. My son said proudly "I'm getting bigger. Soon I'll be a man like you, Dad." I realized it was a good time for a very special conversation I had been saving. I asked "Is that what makes a man? Being tall?" Immediately he understood. "No", he replied. "So what makes a man?" I asked. "Being Strong?", he suggested. "Well, most women are much stronger than men." I replied. "Especially your mom, for example." "No way", he exclaimed. "You're much stronger than Mom." I knew I had him. "Not so. Strength is not just your muscles. Strength can be emotional strength and mental strength, too, right?". He conceded "Yeah, I guess so." "So what makes a man?" I asked again. He tried a few other guesses: getting a job (sadly child labor still exists, even in places we have visited together), having children (close, but just having children does not make you a man), having a car or house (definitely not). He gave up. "tell me the answer", he pleaded.
Compassion. The ability to understand from another's vantage point and show sympathy. This is what makes a man. We all have the capacity to harm others, be it physically or emotionally. A man knows he has this power, but he chooses not to exercise it. Instead, he exhibits mercy and care for others, knowing that it is man's place to protect and comfort other people. Animals do not have compassion, it is a uniquely human trait. According to Buddhism, we cannot solve the problems of others, not all of them, anyway. Each of us must own his/her karmic path, challenges and all. However, this does not mean we should be indifferent to suffering. In fact, quite the opposite. It is our heart of compassion that connects us and supports us on our respective journeys.
This modern society tries to get everyone to hate each other, thereby dividing us and making us easier to rule. This "microtribalism" encourages us not just to disagree, but to revile anyone who's opinions do not exactly match our own. Cities are overcrowded and we are all far too busy. These social factors push us to be cold toward one another or to waste our attention looking for some "invisible enemy". Beyond obvious physical abuse of bullying or violent crime, emotional abuse of other children, co-workers, spouses, service providers and others is at an all-time high. Video after video gets posted on social media showing police hurting regular citizens, people "fighting back" against the system and in general expressing rage at other people. Everyone is "triggered" by the slightest affront and our default reaction is to attack rather than to engage, discuss and understand. We've lost our soul. How can we ever recover?
In the face of so much negativity, it becomes even more important to consider the importance of compassion in our everyday lives. Not just to strangers, but to our own close friends and family. I see so many cases, some bordering on domestic violence, where men treat their girlfriend/spouse or children very badly - heaping verbal abuse and sometimes even physical abuse out of frustration over their own failures or insecurities. Everyone feels like they are losing out - that they should have or be more than they are, which leads to feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness and despair.
Religion continues to be used as a reason for dividing us from each other, when it should really be the opposite. All of the major religions teach compassion, but their worshipers are swayed by extremists who advocate hatred and violence against anyone who may believe differently, and the beliefs are used as just another lame excuse for racism and exclusion.
It's time for us all to take a big step backward and reconnect to our heart of compassion - our natural state of being. We need to rediscover our connectedness to each other and remember that WE ARE ALL ONE. The mass media can make the world seem like an awful place. It's not (at least it doesn't have to be). The reality is that we can and should make an effort to foster love, kindness and compassion in our little corners and help it spread throughout the world. Strength and mercy go hand-in-hand. Strength without mercy is brutality. Mercy without strength is timidness.
It's time to be a man.