Different living beings take on different bodies, like clothes, but a learned person sees everyone as an equal. The Supreme Lord greatly appreciates the compassionate dealings following this perspective. “The Lord is very satisfied when His devotees greet other people with tolerance, mercy, friendship and equality.” Srimad-Bhagavatam, 4.11.13
Dusk descended on a battlefield in the Flemish region, on December 24, 1914. The First World War had been raging for five weeks in bitter conditions. The soldiers were in shell-shock as they inhabited trenches that were far from comfortable. It was below freezing, raining and very muddy. Diseases were spreading and vicious rats ran about in increasing numbers. The air was filled with the stench of rotting dead bodies since troops could not safely retrieve or bury their fellow men because trenches were only 30 to 50 metres apart. It was a bizarre, inhuman and intolerable situation.
This night began as all others – there were no proper sleeping facilities so the troops rested while standing in the trenches – until suddenly something extraordinary happened.
The Allied troops, (British, French and Dutch) were amazed to hear the sound of Christmas carols in the air. They looked over to see the German troops opposite were singing songs and had lined their trenches with hundreds of Christmas trees lit up with candles.
At first the Allies thought it was another devilish stratagem – a war trick. But then, equally unexpectedly, empathy and goodwill set in. It was a moment of camaraderie – everyone understood that the enemy side was also human.
What followed was pure magic: the Allied soldiers started singing back and then got up in a roaring applause. They put their weapons aside, went across No Man’s Land and started greeting their opponents. They all shook hands, shared family photos, exchanged gifts such as cookies, drinks, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. Artillery fell silent as the men talked about the absurdity of war. Even some of the officers joined in.
A historic 100,000 soldiers stood peacefully on the battleground that night. Some celebrations continued on Christmas Day with more music, sharing of food and drink and even friendly football games. The astonishing truce also allowed each side to finally honour their dead comrades with burials, with even some joint services.
Unfortunately, this marvellous scene was ended soon when the higher command at headquarters heard of the miracle of empathy. On both sides, they were outraged and issued strict orders that all enemy fraternizing must be stopped.
Eventually fighting was resumed. The bloody war carried on for four long years, during which nine million people were killed. But the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 became something of a legend.
The saint Bhaktivinoda Thakur gives advice on how to be compassionate. In his commentary to the Bhagavad-gita, the divine song of God sung on another great battlefield 5000 years ago, he shares three steps to develop instant empathy with others.
1) First become aware that we are all equal on the level of the soul.
No matter what body – whether human or animal, man or woman, black or white, English or German etc., all are equal because each being has a soul seated in the heart, which is the true source of their identity.
2) Understand that every one of us suffers and enjoys in the same way.
Acknowledge that another person’s pain and sorrow hurts them as much as our own pain hurts us and appreciate that each person longs for happiness just as we do.
3) Make a firm resolution to do something for the upliftment of others.
Show empathy and understanding to another person and serve/help them in some way.
Sometimes, it is difficult to act on these steps. Certain situations or persons bring out the worst in us. They can drive us mad! But there is a simple and effective way to apply the above steps when things get tricky. The tool is called the “Emotional Traffic Light.”
First is RED: stop, pause for a moment.
Next is YELLOW: assess the situation from a spiritual point of view and bring the 3 points to your mind: we are all eternal souls dressed in various bodies and mind-sets, but essentially/spiritually, we are all parts of Krishna. Think: I have not come to this world to reform others. (This is best left to Krishna.) I have come to reform myself.
Finally is GREEN: act based upon this new insight which will give you an inner and emotional distance to the immediate happenings and help raise you to a spiritual level.
It helps to see God in every situation of life:
yo mam pashyati sarvatra
sarvam cha mayi pashyati
tasyaham na pranashyami
sa cha me na pranashyati
“For one who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, I am never lost, nor is he ever lost to Me.” (Bhagavad-gita, 6.30)