A Better Mousetrap: The Heart of Com-passion

Passion is suffering; compassion is shared suffering. Here's a teaching story.

Posted Feb 27, 2017

Passion comes from a word meaning "to suffer," and compassion means shared suffering, with its implication of sympathy and coming together to bear the vagaries of life. 

In this and next month's blogs, I'd like to share two stories about two encounters I've had that cut straight to the heart of compassion, and taught me more about shared suffering than any number of books and workshops.

My stepfather used to have a Luger with which he’d sometimes crouch in an upstairs window and try to pick off the fighting tomcats that snatched the goldfish from his backyard pond.

This is one of the images that came to me not long ago as I tried to puzzle out how to handle a small dilemma.

I discovered a mouse one evening as I sat at my typewriter and watched impassively as he made his way along the wall in the kitchen, like a small toy car. Naturally, I decided to get rid of him.

There were, however, only two kinds of mousetraps in the hardware store around the corner from my house. One was your basic Last-Supper affair—cheddar cheese, spring-loaded. It was guaranteed, as my friendly neighborhood hardware store man told me, to “break their little bones.” It cost a buck fifty.

The other was an aluminum box about the size of a toaster, with a small tunnel running through it at floor level and designed to be placed two inches from a wall. Mice, being agoraphobic and possessed of only modest eyesight, keep close to walls for security. I know the feeling; I slept most of my childhood that way.

When a mouse, feeling his way by his whiskers, finds an opening in a wall, he instinctively slips in. Hence the hole in the aluminum box. The mouse crawls in, trips a pressure-sensitive plate, and a paddle-wheel sweeps him into an empty chamber.

The cost of such beneficence, with its prospect of setting the mouse free in the field beside my house, was $17.50. I was not exactly beating a path to the checkout counter to pay $17.50 for a mousetrap, but I also didn’t want to kill him, and now I was haggling over the price of compassion.

As a boy—and as were most boys—I was a squoosher. I squooshed an appalling number of caterpillars, ants, worms, flies and spiders during my formative years, both in and outside my house. This impulse was, I think, an assertion of my meager dominion, or my competitive urge misplaced. A friend even suggested that it’s a primal instinct (surely a bored and aimless one) that puts me on red-alert and prompts me to attack when another creature invades my territory.

Personally, I think it’s overaddressing the issue to imply that some saber-toothed twitch of the brainstem is what prompts me to pulverize spiders in my living room, a territory bound by carpeting, quadraphonic coaxial speakers, and a welcome mat.

Just as likely, this behavior was a reaction to growing up in a home where everything had its place, and any animal that stepped out of line or slipped into the house uninvited was fair game. The message was clear: there’s no bargaining in the pecking order. Every portal into the house had a screen, we had a pest spray or a rolled-up magazine for every genus and species, the dogs belonged downstairs, and my stepfather had the Luger.

I remember when this king-of-the-hill disposition I inherited began to change. It was the year my parents got divorced. I was 9, and they sent me to spend the summer at the farm of some friends in rural Pennsylvania. The two boys in the family took me hunting one day with their BB gun. I was the city kid who had never hunted before, and when I shot a sparrow in the high branches of an elm on my first try, I felt a surge of accomplishment and bravado.

But when I picked up my prize by its wing and saw the dark red blood dripping from its head—not insect green or yellow this time, but red like mine—I felt a sudden, sickening regret.

As I came in close to my own pain that summer, and for a long time thereafter, I slowly began to see pain everywhere. Gradually, I’ve been trying to cease administering it. I sense that there’s a diminishing curve of insensitivity as a man gets older.

So I don’t strip the leaves off twigs anymore when I walk along the sidewalk, and I work around the ant colony when I’m clearing the backyard. Sometimes I feel so isolated from the proverbial web of things, living in the city, that a part of me is even glad to have something resembling an ecosystem around. The spider webs in the windows do amazing things with the light that slips in at sunset.

Also, I can’t shake the feeling that somewhere there’s a tally being kept of these things—my cruelties and my compassions—and that it’ll make a difference somewhere down the line when I go to cash in my chips. Besides, there is a question in my mind of relativity. Who’s the pest here, me or the mouse? To a germ, I’m sure, even health is a form of disease.

In the end there was no real dilemma. I'd made up my mind: I intended to loosen the grip on my assumed sovereignty and make good on my preference for life. And if I paid an arm and a leg for a mousetrap, such was the price of the rodent not taken.

As I stood in the checkout line at the hardware store, an elderly man tapped me on the shoulder. “Good for you,” he said, surveying my $17.50 mousetrap. “You’ll probably come back as a mouse.”

For more about Passion!, visit www.gregglevoy.com

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