I was out of town the week that the death of Weston’s Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Janet Shaner, rocked and shocked the community.
News of the sad event came to me in a voice-mail message from a member of our congregation. She began by saying, “Your closing words about showing kindness are so important. It’s the first thing I thought of when I heard about Dr. Shaner’s suicide.” Her voice cracked, and she sobbed, “I just wanted you to know how important it is to leave us with that reminder every week.”
She was referring to two benedictions I use on alternate Sundays. One is a poem by Miller Williams which he titled ‘The Ways We Touch,’ in which he says: “Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears to be conceit, cynicism or bad manners is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
The other is a well-known piece which is variously attributed: “Now say to thyself: If there’s any good thing I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any person, let me do it now, let me not defer or neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.”
If someone were to ask you to summarize what all the religions of the world have in common–at their best–you would most likely use words like kindness and compassion.
We clergy hear about the personal wars that are going on ‘down there where the spirit meets the bone.’ People tell us things they may not tell anyone else. Sometimes it takes the form of confession, when a person talks about things they regret having said or done. Sometimes it’s a terminally-ill person attempting to summarize her life when it is about to end. Sometimes somebody says how they’ve failed in their relationship with a spouse, a child, or deceased parent.
Without having known Janet Shaner, I couldn’t help wonder whether or not she had confided in someone she trusted. No one really knew ‘what wars were going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.’
I hadn’t paid attention to the criticism she had endured. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m getting hardened to it. We’re such a critical, judgmental people, on the surface. But there’s another part of us; a warm, caring, generous part that we too often push down.
Dr. Shaner’s death reminds us, again, that compassion and kindness matter. It can make all the difference in one’s day, in a person’s life. We’ve been reminded to be careful with our criticisms and judgments; but it wasn’t criticism from the outside that took her life.
Janet Shaner decided to take her own life, and she must assume the ultimate responsibility for that decision, which not only destroyed her life but her credibility as an educator. It’s complicated and contradictory: we have to assume responsibility for what we do and say, and we have to accept our limits. We’re human.
So, have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. And say to yourself, if there’s any good thing I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any person, let me do it now, let me not defer or neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.