The Insanity of Compassion: A Personal Letter

07/26/2011 06:30 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2011

This story will strike some of you as the most absurd waste of a grown person's emotional life. For others, I imagine it will hit home. For me this is just a constant struggle, and it has been ever since I was a child. Today, it forced me to ask myself: At what point does compassion become crackpot?

Here it is just as it happened -- no embroidery, no hemming and hawing.

We have a grill/kiva in our courtyard. It has a metal cover which we sometimes neglect to take off. When the cover is on there is a small space between itself and the brick. Thus, making the grill area of the kiva a nesting spot for one particular, industrious mouse. Within a night, that little one can build a nest that, for us, would be the equivalent of a seven-figure home. We've evicted her before, but this time was different.

Anyway, this morning I was compelled to lift the metal cover of the grill. Why? I don't know. Maybe because I noticed a larger than usual opening on the side of it and thought, "Now, that's a pretty entrance for a critter."

Naturally, when I removed the cover I saw the nest. I got a utensil, lifted and pulled out the straw and fur. After about 30 seconds, a wily, bouncy mouse jumped forward, then back (after realizing that I was standing there), then forward and back again. Clearly, I was in her way, so I moved aside and watched her scurry up over the kiva and out of the courtyard.

I got a hose to clean up what the mouse had left behind, thinking that I had removed everything important.


I poured on the water and out popped another scrunch of dried fuzzle and three baby (nearly newborn) mice. One seemed to take the water very badly, and I didn't think he had survived past a few minutes. The other two hung on, squealing, wriggling, looking for a safe spot.

I was horrified.

I called my husband, who by now knows how I am and how I respond to situations like this one. He was a prince and said, "When I get back, we'll give them a burial and pray for them."

That soothed me for a while. I gathered all three of them and placed them in a mound of fur (collected from the dogs) on a grassy spot underneath a sage bush that gave them shade. I was hoping the mother would get them, or that nature would take its course quickly.

Neither did.

And once again, I was struck by their struggle.

Hours later I found that one of the baby mice had disappeared, but the two remaining were still alive. They were alone, but wriggling and punching at the air as if looking for something (I imagined that to be their mother). It struck me as both a profound sorrow that they were alone and an exquisite beauty that they such frail creatures were so indomitable .

Once again, I called my husband. He said simply, "Put them back in the kiva and let the mama come get them. Put a little half-and-half on a q-tip and give them a little moisture. Tomorrow we'll just remove the cover."

So, I picked them up, put them in a semblance of a nest, gave them a tiny bit of cream on a q-tip and prayed for them.

Then, I wondered, what kind of nut prays for the lives of two baby vermin?

I guess I do.

I honestly couldn't help it. It seemed to me so outrageous to watch them suffer without doing anything, and that I was the original agent of their suffering was just unbearable to me. Furthermore, it seemed that their death -- the way I had architected it -- was useless. It served no purpose. No hawk or coyote or roadrunner benefited from them in any natural way. It was just death, the kind that fills garbage dumps.

So, I closed the cover for the night. But I knew I hadn't closed the cover on this issue for me. This is not happening because I have an affinity for rodents. It happens to me with far more force when I hear about children being killed in Brooklyn or babies without food in Rwanda.

I remember a long while back I came upon a hawk with a rabbit in its talons. It sat quietly and cautiously underneath a juniper tree in my yard. It didn't move as I approached, but I could see the half-eaten rabbit still breathing.

I did nothing, for there was nothing to do but hurt one animal for another, but I wept quietly for quite a while after that.

The next day, I told a friend of mine about it and she gave me a long new-age speech about the circle of life and how it all is okay. I was not comforted; I was annoyed.

So, I spoke to one of the brightest and most spiritual men I know, an Orthodox Priest, and he said, "It is right to lament the state of the world. It is fallen and full of sorrow."

It sounded like something the Buddha would say, but it helped. Someone saw what I saw. Life can be full of suffering.

I don't want you to think that I walk around joyless or constantly worried. Quite the contrary. I am enthralled with life, being in it, of it and around it. But as much as I love, as much as I take delight in a child's first giggle or a dog's toothy smile, I feel the burn of another's pain.

I think I wrote about this in The Huffington Post before, when I spoke about losing Angie, the eldest of our dog pack. I don't think these mice have changed my mind. I may seem insane, but I would rather have the fullest range of joy that comes with the sorrow, than give it up for the sake of emotional safety.

And now, the update:

The next morning my husband -- my hero -- went into the backyard, removed the metal cover of the kiva and lo and behold! He found everyone gone.

The mother returned for her young, moved them to a condo that doesn't flood, and they will live to see another day. But not in my kiva.

Is it crackpot to be happy about that?