Donald Paulson looked out over the football field. The goalposts were draped in flags and a stage was set up in the endzone. A warm breeze, with hints of summer to come, wafted over the field. And then the figures in long robes took to the stage.
He could remember just a few years before when his daughter Marianne had been a toddler with cute, giant eyes. Don saw her each morning before work, and in the evenings, although he had to admit that between being tired and the four light beers he gulped down to reset his brain after work, the memories were hazier there. Now she was graduating high school.
The principal made a speech. She compared the future to a path across the ocean for the first Native Americans to reach the new world. Don got another beer; luckily, the concessions stand was still alive for this event, just as it was for football games. When he returned, a teacher was speaking.
She spoke of the importance of being moral citizens, and how her own time and effort — more than on simply teaching the material — had been spent in illustrating this sphere, which she saw as the true world her students would someday live in. She compared it to Plato’s cave and ended with a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr.
Don waved at his neighbor, Ron Lehman, who had shown up late. Wishing he had known of that option, he returned to listening. The class valedictorian was now speaking. She started by comparing the mind to an investment portfolio, and the need to have balance and diversity in investments. But, she added, all of this only added up to real value if when it was cashed out, the money went to making the world a better place.
It took Don’s breath away. The speech was perfect. She knew all of the right symbols and clicés and the order to put them in, which made them seem not like clichés, but newly discovered wisdom as if transmitted from the heavens. He found himself clapping at the end, and then straining to see the figures marching across the stage. He got a good picture of Marianne as she accepted the paper, and a blurry one of her teary face.
He found himself in the car, alone, staring straight ahead as he waiting for the throng of traffic — slowed by the need to wave to people, fiddle with cell phones and chat in the car — to exit the parking lot so he could follow. He felt tears, but not in his eyes; in his chest. Like all realizations, this one surged from within: his child was now lost to him.
She would go out into the world, find a job and a husband or wife, and then she would need nothing from him. He then had no handle of control on her, no way to compel her to pay attention to him, because her needs would be met elsewhere. It reminded him of losing his first college girlfriend to a drug dealer named Hog. Cocaine and a Camaro were more important than whatever he had to offer her, which he reflected, happened only a year after his own graduation.
As he parked his car back at the house, Don looked up toward the two-bedroom slanted roof house he had purchased after the divorce came through. Where the other house felt like it had personality, this reminded him of an apartment. He had covered it in his stuff, nostalgia and diplomas, but it still felt like a temporary space, maybe a conference room with beds.
“Hey, Don,” came a voice. Ron was hailing him from the middle of the street. Don waved back and waited for his neighbor to make his way up the walk to the front door. “Quite a day, isn’t it? I am so proud of our Jayden, as you must be proud of Marianne. They’re heading out into the big world now, to try to do better than we did.”
With an exhalation, Don recalled why he almost never talked to Ron: the man was a religious fanatic, and he was always injecting these moments of meaning into ordinary conversation. Those inevitably pointed toward Ron’s extended thesis that the country was going to hell, and could only save itself if everyone turned to Jesus.
Don did not hate Jesus. He liked to say he thought of Jesus as obsolete, but really, he was disgusted by him. The church for him implied pickup trucks and domestic beer, unthinking patriotism, and other coping behaviors he had no use for. He opted to split the difference.
“Exciting times, for all of us,” he said. “Those kids are heading out into a world with a lot more opportunity than we had. All the technology, and all the great jobs that come with it, and buying a house has never been easier. Not like the bad old days we had to fight through.”
“True, but what will they do with it?” Ron answered. “Most of the world still lives in poverty, or are stuffed into that awful Section 8 housing with bad air conditioning. There are now nearly fifty nuclear enabled nations, and tensions in five regions of the world. Women still have not cracked the grass ceiling, really, nor have we come really far in equality for the obese. If only there were some way to wake them up, spiritually, our kids would face a better world.”
Ron had experienced a religious moment once, Don recalled. After too many watery beers at one tailgate party, he had told them about it. “The truck flipped seven times,” he had said. “Like the seven trumpets. And then I was lying there, feeling my body grow cold, as the paramedics worked on me. And then I saw it, a light in the sky. And I knew that I had to come back to living, and spread the word of God, because it is the only thing that will save us from the animal in ourselves.”
Don toed some rocks back into place on the decorative drive. “For me, the hope is that they have compassion,” he said. “Things like politics, economics, even religion, they all separate us from the human dimension. That we are here to care for each other. If we care, we can change. If we can change, we can set everything right, and then we will have a society that all others can look up to.” It was like winning yard-of-the-month, he thought.
“In my experience,” Ron said, “the only path to compassion is through Christ. Without Him, we have only pity for ourselves that we use to relate to others. That makes us feel better, but it does not show us the real light. When people come to Christ, the light spreads from the sky to their souls, and they become enlightened about what we should be doing down here. That’s how I see it anyway.”
Don thought he should ask a question, so he intoned, “But what practical value can it have?”
“Oh, many,” said Ron. “But because we are simple little humans, and not able to see the secrets of God, we won’t know about them until we go looking for them. We need to have a spiritual heart, and then we can see not just what is true, but where we are needed. Christianity is more like a compass than a place and time, if you know what I mean.”
“I guess that is the role compassion serves for me. If you don’t mind a bit of a challenge, what does religion do that is different from compassion? Compassion is the soul of humanity: we treat each other well, by understanding the feelings and needs of other people. Without compassion, we are just business transactions.”
“That’s a good question, Don. I would follow up by asking you this. When you start a project at work, do you know exactly what you are building — you’re an industrial engineer, as I understand — entirely, and how it will look at the end?”
“Yes,” said Don. “Well, and no. We have a spec sheet, we know what it has to do, and we know how other units like it have been designed in the past. There are always environmental influences however. These just crop out. This is probably the most frustrating part of my job. On this last job, we had an actuator that stopped working because the machine next to it generated steam, and the metal hulls trapped it, so the humidity was too high…” he trailed off, finding himself becoming animated, but Ron nodded.
“…for it to operate. So yes, I know what I am doing, but I do not know exactly what it will look like in the end, but it will still be the same basic design. Like compassion: compassion is the design, and the specific circumstance is the person, but you can apply compassion to that person and everything turns out just fine. In fact, better than fine, because you have a single design that you can apply everywhere and understand everything. Getting closer to God.”
“That certainly sounds challenging. The thing is, you never know exactly what it will look like. That is a lot like life. What we want is often not what we need. When Suzanne and I started looking for a house, in a neighborhood, we wanted a colonial in closer to the city. But then we came out here, and it met all of our needs, so we bought a house we never thought we would want.”
Don laughed. “For me, that kills the joy in life. The essence of compassion is passion. A passion for living, an intense emotion, that gives meaning to our lives. If I want a certain type of house, I can chase my passion and get it. That way, I feel fulfilled not by what the world hands me, but what I have done to it. How I have changed its design.”
They both looked up at his current house, obviously no one’s idea of great design, and laugh. “This is my post-divorce house,” said Don. “I don’t think I care much about houses anymore. But the point is, you know, that I need to know what I want and specifically intend it, so that my passion is fulfilled. Compassion allows us to do that for others, and see where their passion needs addressing, so we can understand them and, I dunno, get along with them. Then we all get our dreams.”
Ron looked at the house. “It’s a nice house, I think. It does what you need. In my experience, most of what we think we need is just what we want, and we came up with that because we saw it in an ad, or a friend did it, or it was on a favorite TV show. When we have spiritual purpose, it is more like knowing where we want to end up, but realizing that it will not take the form we want. We look for where we can do God’s work instead.”
Don found himself feeling a bit tired and irritable. “Without compassion, however, we have nothing. No connection to our fellow human beings, no purpose in life, not even any basis for truth or morality. Without compassion, we are nothing more than animals. Compassion lifts us above this world, brings us closer to the heavens, and shows us what is right not based on principles, or results, but on the human soul. It is a human order.”
“In fact,” Don went on, “Life without compassion is empty. With no connections to others, we will never reach out again, and we are just isolated, like living on our own personal islands. When I discovered compassion, it changed my life. No longer was I just some dude living in the suburbs. Now I was part of something bigger, like a spirit, that is better than this ruined world and shows me the way.”
Ron thought for a moment, chewing on his inner lip slightly. “What if someone does not want compassion, or disagrees with you that it is the most important thing?”
“Then that person is evil. Compassion is beyond thought, mathematics, money, logic, physics, and religion, which is really a form of politics. Compassion is a pure sensation through which we understand the core of the universe and all the beauty of life, all in one instant. Those who have not experienced it will not understand it, and in that state they are evil.”
“Well, now I feel evil,” said Ron. They both laughed. “Do you think Christ was compassionate?”
“He was a politician,” said Don. “He wanted them to do what he told them to, first, and only later be compassionate. That ruined his message for me.”
That night, Don slept in his king-sized bed which adjusted to his posture and made the mattress firmer in different parts, cushioning him. It connected to his cell phone through bluetooth, and he could lie in bed and adjust the frame, hearing the motors whirring above and feeling as if he were in a spaceship, sailing over the world, in command of his destiny.
As the moon rose and faded, he passed into dream. Some call this lucid dreaming, because the dreamer is able to influence the dream, but Don had no time for that mumbo-jumbo. His dreams were always of Africa, where he arrived dressed in white and brought water, medicine and hope to remote villages of starving people. In his dreams, he fought off bad guys — usually Chinese, sometimes Arab — with spears and guns, taking many wounds and slaying many men, to deliver his people from suffering. Above it all the sun shined with a warm compassion for life itself.
But tonight, he found himself in a dark forest clearing. Columns of fire leaped up into the trees but did not burn them. At the back of the clearing was an altar, and around it were people in dark robes, their eyes covered in sunglasses. Reflected in those lenses he could see the blaze and the red eyes of the hooded figure seated on a throne behind the altar.
Hail, Master! Praise Him!
Invisible one, lord of light!
Most beautiful angel
Son of power, giver of control
Praise Lucifer, Master of this world!
As the people chanted, dark creatures — as tall as a wall, with heads of boars and bodies of giant crickets — hacked away vegetation and led in the sacrifice. Ron swallowed his gasp, aware that others would notice. The children in their graduation gowns filed past, marched to the altar. As each reached the front, the beast lowered his scepter.
Each person in the audience held up a cell phone. Don did the same. On his phone, he saw scenes from the life of the child: the first four failed loves, the job which felt like a jail sentence, the marriage that burned out, the children that blurted out just how much they hated their parents on their first acid trip — a rite of passage, following the 60s model Don had adored — and moved as far away from home as possible, the rising salary and decreasing involvement with the outside world, finally a retirement to endless television, then a slow death from some disease that ate them from within.
As he watched these lives, Don saw that the crowd was excited. These were good jobs, and normal lives. He felt compassion for the sacrifices. This was their purpose, just as his was to be a watcher. He saw the procession of misery, emptiness, self-hatred, doubt, coldness and detachment and found himself smiling. And then Marianne was next. The crowd turned to him. Don forced himself to smile, and they turned away.
He watched her life scroll past as it progressed from hopeful innocence to a certainty of nothingness. He felt compassion in that moment, and it made him feel good. And when the sacrifice was over, he joined the chant:
Hail, Moloch! Lord of the Eye!
Praise the Master of all Death
He who brings suffering on which to feast
We delight in the pain
We join thee, Destroyer
In you, we are complete
We are power
Hail to the Master of Masters,
Lord of Death and Decreptiude
Hail Moloch, Hail!