12/19/2012 05:31 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

Compassion for Them All

The unspeakable tragedy in Newtown will be inspiring public debates and discussions for days, if not weeks, to come. I'm not sure it can be thoroughly understood right now. For me it's an unbearable example of how sad and terrible a human life can become and how much personal pain can cause a seemingly harmless individual to do what would have seemed unimaginable -- until it happens. I'm filled with pity over this event, both for the victims and their families, but also for the killer, his mother and his surviving family. The atrocity he committed demonstrates how human beings can revert to blindly destructive acts. The impulse to commit violence is maybe just a part of human nature. There may in fact be no one who can adequately explain how this particular tragedy could have been prevented, with its convergence of so many possible pressures: isolation, autism, divorce, maybe mental illness. I don't know, and I'm not in a position to know.

Yet the horror of his event -- the way these killings seem to be a recurring dark episode in American life -- has a personal resonance for me. My response to this event is what it's always been when faced with evil: to want to embrace what's good. It's the way I've dealt with evil all my life, even when I felt it was impossible to comprehend, as I'm tempted to feel now. As a child in Romania, I watched Communism transform ordinary people in our village, as the Soviet Union infiltrated and took control of our lives after World War II. People became unrecognizable versions of themselves, suddenly willing to commit acts of cruelty, including murder. In fact some of those we thought we knew as decent, peaceful people came to our door and arrested my grandfather. Eventually he was kicked to death in prison by guards, simply because the regime feared his influence. He was a man revered by the whole nation, a statesman and journalist and freedom fighter. He was a deeply religious and honorable man. To see him treated this way shook me to my core. Shortly after his arrest, they seized my grandmother, my brother and me, and they forced us to do life-threatening work. I coped with years of this captivity by trying to do a good job for my tormentors, to be a good boy who did his tasks so well that they would see my worth. I pushed back against evil with goodness. And eventually goodness answered back -- though not because of my efforts. Through the intercession of many others, after years of servitude, we were released and sent to America. Here I was given opportunities that enabled me to succeed and raise a family, and enjoy an abundant life. As a result my faith in the goodness of human nature remains as strong as my awareness of our potential for evil.

It took me years, as an adult, to reconcile my awareness of evil with my faith in a higher power that enables us to be good. It was an understanding that came to me as a personal necessity. Years after my release from the labor camp, I felt as if I were falling apart, emotionally. I began meditating as a way of dealing with my latent anxieties. This discipline -- physical, mental, spiritual, however you want to think of it -- led me to see a new way of understanding God, as the origin of a goodness in human behavior which can, in fact, disarm our destructive impulses. Those impulses I believe are hard-wired into our DNA through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution when we had to be violent and deceptive in order to survive. Now the challenge is to overcome our own brain. To master much of what our older brain urges us to do by practicing good choices repeatedly, every day. I've learned that you can train the brain, through daily choice, to respond with compassion, not contention, and this doesn't come simply through "belief" or an adherence to ideology. It's a practice. It happens, one choice at a time, one person at a time, every day, in decisions that allow kindness and generosity and love to edge out anger and contention. Only mindfulness over every choice we make will alter us as individuals and a species.

I know this may sound like an ineffectively humble response to the horror of Newtown. The list of preventive measures people will be advocating will undoubtedly be quite long and may sound far more decisive and dramatic. And, of course, there may have been no way to prevent the killings in Newtown. We might have surrounded this young man with unceasing kindness and compassion and still have heard eventually that he walked into that school with guns. It's heartbreaking to learn he was a child who would never allow his own mother to hug him, so how much compassion would he have been able to absorb? However, I can testify, with the authority of someone who has lived through evil and come out with a faith in goodness, that mindful compassion can restore order to a single human life. It works in larger groups as well.