The Book Thief, Community, and Compassion
Ezra and I just saw the film The Book Thief for the second time, and like the book, it was compelling. It is narrated by Death, who says, “Here is a small fact. You are going to die. You will know me soon enough; at some point I will be standing over you (I rarely find people standing up), as you lie there, caked in your own body. I will carry you gently away.
“Then there are the leftover humans, the survivors … those left behind, crumbling, with despair and surprise, with punctured hearts. Today’s story is about one of those perpetual survivors, an expert at being left behind.”
He’s referring to the book’s main character, Liesel, whom we first meet on a train with her mother and her brother. Her brother dies on the trip and is buried by the tracks. When a gravedigger drops a book, Liesel picks it up, as a remembrance of her brother.
However, she can’t read.
When she arrives at her foster home, her new father, Hans, teaches her to read. Perhaps the film hasn’t been more popular because it doesn’t fit into the familiar categories. Rarely does the unseen character of Death punctuate a wartime story. Also, although Liesel is a German child, her foster family has trouble making a living, because Hans refuses to join the Nazi party. At one point he defends a Jewish shopkeeper the Nazis are taking prisoner, and they beat him. When someone asks why, the answer is “He reminded them of their humanity.”
The story depicts diverse aspects of the human condition: the kindness and integrity of certain individuals, and a dark side of community, as exemplified by the lack of compassion in a culture where many are marginalized, and others elevated almost to deification.
These themes these make it clear why Zen training emphasizes awakening the heart of compassion, in addition to cultivating presence and insight into reality. We understand why living with kindness and wakefulness are requirements, not electives.
Also, Zen has historically valued community as a force for awakening. The ZCSD community has recently seen some changes, starting with Ezra’s surgery and slow ongoing recovery, his 70th birthday on New Year’s Day, and our move in early January, five miles north, on the ocean.
The kindness of the ZCSD community has been a beacon in these times of change. We’ve lived in ZCSD’s Grand Central Station for many years; Ezra moved here in 1999, and I’ve lived here since 1983, after four years at our first location, Black Mountain Zendo.
Ezra and I are still fully involved in practicing and teaching at ZCSD. We only miss the 6:00 am weekday sittings—as does almost everyone!
In our new home, we sit each morning at 6:30, 11:30, and 5:00 pm, to provide a formal practice context for our daily responsibilities.
Ezra and I have often joked that life’s actual “retirement policy” is death, so it may sound surprising that we’ve moved into a retirement community! While we’re among the oldest folks at ZCSD, we’re close to the youngest at our new home. Many are less robust, and need walkers, canes or wheelchairs to keep them actively involved in life. It’s a vivid reminder of one of life few guarantees: that we’re all getting closer to death.
In times of transition, from health changes, to losses, to living situations, it’s worthwhile to reflect on how our individual and shared practice interweave. The microscope of solitary practice and the telescope of community combine to form a crucible that enables us to see through the illusions that bind us and blind us. Community practice, in particular, can be a powerful mirror of where we’re stuck.
If we live nearby, we may not realize how many lack access to meditative community resources. Some ZCSD members live very far away and can come to ZCSD rarely, if at all. Community provides a context for mutually serving one another’s practice, as others offer us the gift of their presence, and we provide support for the energy of community.
Let’s look at how to help insure that community remains beneficial:
- What keeps ZCSD a healthy, sustainable practice center, fulfilling its mission as an all-volunteer center, without staff or residents?
- How can shared stewardship empower us toward autonomy and interdependence, reminding us that we’re responsible for our own practice, rather than dependency on ZCSD or the teachers?
- How can our collective and personal efforts enable us to open into the larger life, in which our individual endeavors and inevitable self-centeredness are encompassed?
Then there’s commitment, a seed of awakening that is fueled by determination, intention and motivation. Checking our perspective regularly helps us assess whether community, compassion and commitment are etching their way into our being. We can also ask ourselves: What do we wish—for ourselves, for those near and dear, for ZCSD, for the larger community, and for the world?
What is our aspiration?
We can be inspired by Ezra’s reminder of a little bird that sits on our shoulder, and asks lightly “Is today the day you will die?” This question comes alive daily, in our new home. In The Book Thief, one of the final comments from Death, after Liesel dies, is: “Often I am reminded of her, and re-tell her story. It proves to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.”
Elizabeth Hamilton, Meditations at the Edge