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Lions Roar : July 2018
inside.” Worst of all, he had begun to resent his clients, and he knew this meant he needed to get out of his profession. His story exemplifies the nega- tive outcomes of a combination of all the Edge States: what hap- pens when altruism goes toxic, empathy leads to empathetic distress, respect collapses under the weigh of sensitivity and futil- ity and turns to disrespect with a loss of integrity, and engagement leads to burnout. Suffering had crept up on the psychologist, and he began to die inside. He could no longer absorb and transform pain to find meaning in his work and his world. My friend is far from alone in his suffering. Many caregivers, par- ents, and teachers have confided similar feelings to me. Part of my work has been to address the dev- astating epidemic of futility, which leads to a deficit of compassion in people who are expected to care. I have another friend, a young Nepali woman who bucked the odds and turned adversity into strength. Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita, one of the country’s greatest woman mountain climbers, was an hour’s walk from Everest Base Camp in April 2015 when the 7.8 earthquake hit. She heard the thundering avalanche that killed many at Base Camp. She immediately set off to help but was forced to turn back when an aftershock hit. Pasang’s home in Kathmandu had been destroyed by the quake—but she and her husband, Tora Akita, realized that they had to respond to the loss of life, home, and livelihood that many in Nepal were facing. “I could have been killed at Everest Base Camp,” Pasang said. “But I was safe. I survived. There had to be some reason why I survived. I told my husband, ‘We have to do something for the people who are in trouble.’” In Kathmandu, Pasang and Tora began to organize young people, and hired trucks to bring rice, lentils, oil, salt, and tarps to people in Sindhupalchowk, the region of the quake’s epicen- ter. She returned week after week to the Gorkha area with roof tin, tents, medicine, and more tarps for the survivors in a num- ber of villages. She hired local people to make new trails across and over landslides that had destroyed existing pathways. She employed hundreds of villagers to bring food and supplies to people who were completely isolated by the effects of the quake and facing the monsoon season without food or shelter. Pasang was acting from altru- ism, an Edge State that can easily enough tip toward harm. But in speaking with Pasang during her months of intensive ser- vice following the earthquake, I never detected anything in her voice but unlimited goodwill energy, and dedication. She also expressed a tremendous sense of relief that she and her husband were able to help. My psychologist friend went over the edge and never found his way back. My Nepali friend stood on the edge of her humanity. How is it that some people don’t get beaten down by the world but are animated by the deep desire to serve? I think compassion is key. The psychologist had lost his con- nection to his compassionate heart; burnout had deadened his feelings. Cynicism had sent down a deep root. Pasang, though, was able to remain grounded in compassion and let those feelings guide her actions. I have come to view compassion as the way to stand grounded and firm on the precipice and not fall over the edge. And when we do fall over the edge, compassion can be our way out of the swamp. When we learn to recognize the Edge States in our lives, we can stand on the threshold of change and see a landscape abun- dant with wisdom, tenderness, and basic human kindness. At the same time, we can see a desolate terrain of violence, failure, and futility. Having the strength to stand at the edge, we can draw lessons from places of utter devastation—the charnel grounds— of refugee camps, earthquake-destroyed areas, prisons, cancer wards, homeless encampments, and war zones, and at the same time be resourced by our basic goodness and the basic goodness of others. This is the very premise of coming to know intimately the Edge States: How we develop the strength to stand at the edge and have a wider view, a view that includes all sides of the equa- tion of life. How we find life-giving balance between oppositional forces. How we find freedom at the edge. And how we discover that the alchemy of suffering and compassion brings forth the gold of our character, the gold of our hearts. ♦ Adapted from Standing at The Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Cour- age Meet, by Roshi Joan Halifax. © 2018 by Roshi Joan Halifax. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. PHOTOCOURTESYOFUPAYAZENCENTER Roshi Joan Halifax’s retreat cabin. I have come to view compassion as the way to stand firmly grounded on the precipice and not fall over the edge. LION’S ROAR | JULY 2018 71