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Interfaith

What I Learned from a Buddhist Who Doesn’t Believe in Killing Roaches

Residential street and living houses in New Rochelle, Westchester, at beautiful sunny day

I take a deep breath before ringing the doorbell. I am the Adult Protective Services (APS) social worker sent to investigate an allegation of neglect of the six elderly, frail residents at this Assisted Living group home. Allegedly, the owner is not providing enough food, and there is a cockroach and rodent infestation. I am unaware that I am about to be schooled in insect spirituality.

A sweet Sri Lankan caregiver man (with the Anglicized name “Frank”) answers the door. I explain the reason for my visit. I look down at his sandals that have clearly been gnawed on by something or someone. He is not the owner/alleged neglector, just a worker here. He explained how it’s been this way for months.

“Well, why didn’t someone call us months ago?” I ask.

“I’m a Buddhist.” He states, matter-of-factly.

“OK?”

“I feel that every living thing has a soul. And if I reported the issues in this house, someone might kill the rats and the cock-a-roaches. And their souls are as important as my own.”

“What about the elderly residents that live here? Surely they have souls too. If they had no food to eat and had rodents and cockroaches running around, they needed help too, right?’

He clasps his hands, closes his eyes, and bends his head in submission. After a moment, his eyes open and he lifts his head. “This is a spiritual quandary I could not engage in quickly.” I sigh.

“I took it upon myself to feed the residents what I could from my personal food and groceries, so that no one would have to send people to kill the cock-a-roaches or rats. But the owner has not paid me in many months, and I cannot afford to feed everyone anymore…”

For a minute, I stand in silence in the kitchen with the humble man, clad in a tattered whitish t-shirt, light blue harem pants and half eaten sandals. There is a slight odor of brackish sweat and stale breath emanating from Frank, but I imagine that in a world where he is responsible for feeding his charges without getting paid himself, and where his soul is equal to that of cockroaches, dental hygiene and deodorant might not be a priority, or even something he can afford.

The precious souls of the residents rest quietly in their worn bodies in the next room. They are all staring at a TV that seems to have little reception. Frank and I regard each other gently for a moment as he studies my face. I debate using an empathic social worker statement by sharing with him that my father was a Holocaust survivor and Nazis condemned his family—implying that others thought their souls were not worth preserving either. But I decide that aligning the plight of my dead grandparents (and 6 million other Jews) with the cockroaches roaming this house was not the fairest of comparisons.

Frank leads me outside and points at large holes under the facility’s carport made from burrowing animals. As my triage brain kicks into gear thinking about which exterminator would rid the facility of such presumably large creatures, Frank insists that we must try to catch a glimpse of the glorious underground creature. I ask him what the animal is, but Frank does not answer, he just drops to the ground and peers in the hole.

Shedding professional boundaries and decorum, I lie next to him on the moist ground. Our heads are touching as we peer down the long holes into the earth, and I am struck by the strange intimacy connecting me, Frank, and the earth below us. The experience, and the odor, overwhelms me, and shortly, I am not quite sure where my body ends and the dirt under me begins. I am both fearful and excited at the prospect of catching a glimpse of the elusive animal, but he never shows.

As if embarrassed from lying together, after a few minutes we simultaneously sit up rather abruptly on the lawn, putting distance between us. I promise him that I will help the residents. I go back to my office to make a plan, but ruminate about the interaction for a long time.

I understand the inherent worthiness Frank sees in all beings. My own Jewish (albeit rather secular) moral compass involves kindness above all else. I sought work in this field, APS, because I get invited into the homes of folks at such critical times in people’s lives. We protect vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect, and exploitation; we even protect the ones that are hard to like.

In the past, I have held the hand of a gasping-for-breath hospice patient who, as a young mother, beat her kids to within an inch of their lives. Her last two aides left when she screamed racial-slurs at them. She had been a nasty woman that had alienated and hurt people her whole life. But here, in the bed, she was just a diapered, withered, shell of a person, facing the end of her life. I did this—and do for others—because no one should die alone. I try to be fair and patient when interviewing the perpetrators of beatings and stealers of life-savings of our vulnerable clients. And with each of these people I sit with—people who might be considered vermin by others—I am more able to sit with the part of my soul that the world might see as unworthy too, those ugly parts of myself that gnaw at me just as those rats gnawed on Frank’s shoes.

Buddhists believe that there is no permanent self, and that we are an ever-changing entity. I think about ways I can change–like my perspective about the current political climate. I know that I cannot stand to hear the people across the political divide that threaten the very existence of my family, the safety of some of my friends and clients, and threaten to undermine the civil rights and diversity of the country. But I wonder, WWFD? What Would Frank Do? I decide that he would recognize the goodness in their souls too. Could I listen, with open ears, to the pain of the other? Could I listen to their plight just as I could listen to the pain of my clients?

I am mindful that my children are watching the way I treat others. I will think twice now about stepping on a bug in front of them. And If I can speak in a neutral or positive tone about people with different political and even moral ideologies, maybe it will help my children to see the souls of those in their lives they’d otherwise see as roaches. They might learn to go toward those that initially look abhorrent—the bullies, the people with disabilities—they might learn that these are the folks with injured souls who most need my children’s friendship.

While I have now ensured that the residents of Frank’s group home have moved out and the authorities were notified, I never insisted on getting an exterminator. I like to believe that now, the vermin are the only residents, the only souls roaming that home.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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