An elder Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, "A fight is going on inside me...It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, pride and superiority. The other wolf stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside of you and every other person too."
The grandchildren thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?" The old Cherokee simply replied..."The one I feed."
In 2003 I attended an Asian regional interfaith meeting in Indonesia. The US attacks on Iraq were underway with constant television coverage of the rapid push of troops toward Iraq's capital of Baghdad. Discussions of the war dominated tea breaks and lunch hours. There were a lot of expressions of anger and criticism of the invasion was emotional. The war was having alarming repercussions on the countries in Asia, increasing religious tensions and encouraging oppressive regimes in some countries to become more bold in their repression of civil and human rights groups.
As the exchanges became more emotional, I noticed that tears were streaming down the face of Chi Hanh, our participant from Vietnam. She was an older woman from North Vietnam and had experienced the 1972 US bombing of Hanoi which killed so many civilians and leveled several residential areas of the city. Thinking Chi Hanh was crying because of angry memories of the destruction US forces had brought to her and her family, I tried to console her. Her response, however, was unexpected by all of us in the group.
"I look at the pictures on television of the American soldiers in Iraq, "she said through her tears. "I see them carrying such heavy packs in the hot desert sun and I know they must be suffering so much. I can't look at them without feeling their fear and pain and wondering about their parents and their families back in America. How hard this must be for them. I just want them to return home safely."
Despite all of the reasons Chi Hanh had to be angry at American soldiers for what they did to her and what they were doing in Iraq, she was still able to reach down into her heart and feel empathy for them, wishing them to safely return home to their families.
In the months following the meeting, I thought back to the words of Chi Hanh often. What gave her the inner strength to put aside her own past suffering and negative experiences with Americans, and instead have the compassion to weep for them and wish them safety and happiness without justifying what they were doing in Iraq. As the elder Cherokee would explain it, she had found a way to feed the good wolf of joy, peace, love, humility, kindness and empathy within her so that it unconsciously became her words and actions in difficult situations.
What wolf do we feed? We are facing such difficult times now, both on the global stage and within our own country. There is much division and anger. The space for dialogue appears to have been closed and words are shouted back and forth without hope for understanding and compassion. During times like this, we need to think carefully about what is truly in our hearts. Jesus said it clearly in Matthew 12:
"Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him."