Illustrations by Nanri Tenney
A tiny ray of sunlight caressed the arm of the Goddess of Compassion as she lingered for just one more moment by the open window of her cottage. Though a deity universal and known by many names among Earth’s religions, she chose to dwell among the humans she served in humble places closest to those most in need of her. She had only a few seconds to savor the solitude of her tiny one-room dwelling that was not quite in, not quite beyond the forest, wonder at the meaning of the sparrow’s constant conversation with its companions, and lose herself in the pungent blooms from her herb garden before a human cry of despair filled the space between the walls and she once again rushed away to where she was needed. Early in human history, the number of humans was small and her life was leisurely, but now the voices crying for help were so legion that she could rarely tell one from the other anymore, though each was still uniquely beloved. She was drowned constantly by the never-ending wail of despair.
Though she had been at humanity’s beck and call during every catastrophe for millennia, whether it befell one person or the entire species, she was still perplexed by the essence of humans and their lives. At first, she had answered their calls for help because it was her nature. Love and fruitful benevolent action flowed from her like water over a waterfall and its power was no less than that. But over time she also came to care for the humans and one question began to obsess her: Why do humans fight so hard to live when so much of their time on Earth seems to be full of misery and constant disaster?
Perhaps, she thought, because I only share their moments of despair I do not understand their real existence. What is it like to be them, day after day, when they are not sending their prayers for assistance to me? As long as she appeared to humans as a deity to be marveled at, she knew that she would never learn what she needed to know. A sparrow alighted on her window sill and hopped here and there as she pondered, then it flew off with its flock, their numbers turning the blue sky brown until they disappeared. Seeking the sparrows’ freedom to wander the Earth among humans at will, she shape-shifted into sparrow form before beginning her investigation at the first moment when humans emerged onto the Earth.
Reaching her destination some hundreds of thousands of years in the past, she prepared to land on the ground to mingle with the humans on the Earth’s surface. Instead the sky was filled with humans, alone, in couples, in flocks or families, all flying with wings attached to their shoulders. So many times she had heard humans say ‘I dreamt I was flying’ with a look that showed they believed that they could even if they would not say it. Yes, of course, it made sense to her now. Humans could once fly and sometimes, even in the 21st century, they remembered.
The Goddess of Compassion flew alongside the humans as a sparrow. She witnessed the earth in all its beauty below her. She experienced its glory through not just her own eyes, but those of all the people who were flying near her and viewing the same landscapes. They heard the ocean’s roar as it crashed into the boulders at the horizon between land and water. They flew over forests whose tops shimmered in an array of green hues in the sunlight. They pierced the mists on top of the mountain peaks.
In those days, boundaries between the souls of the humans were thinner and they each carried the same worldview made of an amalgamation of their separate visions of an infant Earth fresh, new, and abundant with life’s diversity and possibilities. The view from above was stunning and brought them together as one people, but they were too separated from the Earth’s surface to truly embrace their planet. The humans realized that if they were to love the Earth, they must leave behind their wings and dwell close to the Earth’s face rather than always over it. They must feel the soil against the soles of their feet and the water close in around their knees to experience the Earth as the beloved being it must be to them if they are to live fully and deeply in her embrace. The choice lay with each human, and one by one, they laid aside their wings, weeping, and came to rest their cheeks against the skin of the Earth, laying themselves down on her breast.
The Goddess of Compassion watched over millennia as the humans and the Earth forged the spirit of the planet’s living breath together. The people eventually forgot the pain of isolation from the Earth that had caused them to become landed beings. But, with time, for many humans, their vision narrowed without remembrance of the sight of the Earth from above. They no longer saw all the mountains and oceans and forests with everyone else, but only the tiny plot of Earth they lived on. Even then, they did not remember the importance of coming to cherish every inch of the land they tilled and hunted, but looked on other’s fields with envy and thought only of how they could use the land for their own profit. The Goddess now understood the origins of much of the misery she had been called on to heal for so long.
But, she began to look more closely and witnessed something else. The farther away the people grew from the heart of the Earth that had made their bodies, the more they became creators themselves. This impulse to regain connection to their world by remaking it began with paintings of animals and humans on the walls of the caves and grew till humans had surrounded themselves in every element of everyday life with depictions of the natural world from which they were growing more distant. Finally some of the works bore no resemblance to nature at all, as if the Earth no longer existed and humanity was afloat in a bubble in the universe, surrounded by nothing. Soon the world grew heavy with the humans’ creations. Many were exquisitely beautiful but each was infused with the same desperate quest to find what they had lost. As the Goddess of Compassion wandered over space and time, she discovered that on no other planet was creativity so omnipresent in each being, so much a part of everyday life. How could the loss of connection to their home be the source of so much misery, but also bring about such a Goddess-like outpouring of creation?
The Goddess of Compassion flew all around the world in her sparrow body, stopping whenever she found a human engaged in a creative act. She would sit for a few moments, quietly, near the person. The artist, for truly every human had earned that title in one way or another, would notice the sparrow perched nearby and think she was the most delightful creature the artist had ever seen. The artist would incorporate the sparrow into her work in whatever form that might take, seeing in the sparrow’s eyes all she had longed for but could not name just as so long ago humans had seen Earth’s transcendent glory through each other’s eyes. The depiction of the sparrow, a bird that for so long had symbolized the triumph of the everyday world that the artist shared with all other living beings, drew each artist deeper and deeper into the matrix of Earth’s life forms in ways that she had never experienced before. Objects and beings – plants, animals, and humans – each shone with numinous warmth and, just as it had once seemed that the essence of each being was separate, now she could sense her connection with all as obvious.
The Goddess of Compassion had always done her work by setting humans into motion – sending a comforting friend into the path of a grief-stricken parent, prodding someone into a less lucrative, but life-saving, career, placing a peaceful thought into the mind of a negotiator to prevent a war. One by one, the humans began to do these things on their own, both sensing the needs of others and discovering that, like the Goddess of Compassion, it was in their very nature to answer the cries of the world.
The Goddess of Compassion transformed herself back into the form of a woman and returned to her cottage where she put her kettle on and waited for the next cry for help from the Earth. For the first time in a millennium, the Goddess had time to finish her tea before she was called away. Over time, the cries were fewer and farther in-between. She was not seen less on the Earth, though now she knew that the answer to her question was that the human instinct to survive through all their misery came from their ancient vision of the bountiful Earth. On many days she became a sparrow and took to flight just to watch over the humans who, day by day, act by act, were not only finding their way home to the Earth but taking all they had learned about creating beauty during their exile to make works known throughout the universe not for their sorrowful yearning, but for their joy and love.