Jewish tradition teaches that in every generation the world is sustained by 36 hidden righteous people. They may look ordinary, but they’re not. No one knows who they are. When humanity makes choices that threaten to destroy the world, God says, “Because of the compassion which these 36 have shown my creatures, I too will show compassion.” And the world continues for one more generation.
I was taking my regular afternoon walk to the harbor and passed by one of my favorite places: a clump of bushes near Sam’s Chowder House restaurant. A colony of feral cats lives there. It seems that every few months there are new kittens; they look so vulnerable as they blink out at the big, busy world teaming with gophers and moles, boats, cars, dogs and people. I fall in love with them every day.
I continued walking and soon ran into a woman I’ll call Bonnie. She has short straight hair, a big smile, and is about a decade younger than I am. Bonnie’s husband died a couple of years ago, and she is still adjusting to life on her own.
“Have you fed the kitties?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she said, laughing. I walked with her over to her car. In the back of the hatchback, neatly organized in boxes, were many stacks of canned cat food, dozens of them, of several varieties. I watched as she gathered her materials for the day’s feeding: cans, paper plates, plastic spoons, plastic garbage bag.
“How are they doing?” I said.
“Two more disappeared yesterday.”
“Disappeared? Where to?”
Bonnie shrugged in exasperation. “Oh, I don’t know!” She told me she had spotted the mean lady who sometimes walks by with her two big dogs, unleashes them – watching while they run up, chase away the cats, and eat their food – and laughs.
“Amazing,” I said, shaking my head. “How could anyone want to torment these poor little creatures?”
“I know.” Bonnie sighed. For a moment we both stood in silence. What can you say?
Bonnie’s been feeding these cats every day for years. Three times a year she brings down people from the Humane Society to spay and neuter the kittens in order to try to control the feral cat population. But somehow, more always show up. And there are rumors that every once in a while a rough looking guy in a pickup truck drives up late at night, puts some cats in boxes, and no one ever sees them again. And when Bonnie comes the next day and all the cats gather for their food, looking up at her and wagging their tails, she notices who’s missing, silently mourns the loss of her kitties, and feeds the ones who are still there.
I looked out over the harbor where a flock of seagulls was flying. A few years ago those of us who live here witnessed a shocking sight: seagulls stumbling around in great distress with empty beer cans shackled around their necks. The poor birds were so tormented. When an occasional well-meaning person would approach a bird to try to rescue it, the bird, if unable to fly, would run in panic. Eventually people who care, working with organizations like WildRescue and International Bird Rescue, began showing up to rescue them. A reward was put up for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators, and the crime stopped.
Why? Who? How dangerous to be a defenseless stray kitten or seagull living close to humans. And how equally dangerous in so many places in the world today, this morning, to be a defenseless woman or child. They all become magnets, and mirrors, for the unfathomable darkness that can dwell within the human heart.
I asked Bonnie how her cats at home are doing. “Oh they’re fine,” she said, beaming. “Another one showed up today, a little orange one. How could I say no? So I took him in too!”
“How many kitties do you have?” I asked.
She laughed and shook her head. “Too many!”
I said goodbye and continued on my way. If the darkness within us is mysterious, is not the light that dwells in our hearts even more so? Where does it come from? And how many more people like Bonnie are there out there, everywhere, ordinary people, usually unnoticed by the world, acting in their own ways to make a difference, with no other motive than pure compassion? And hopefully, hopefully, teaching God to save this world of ours for one more generation.
That’s when the idea hit me: maybe on the OWL web site, we can start telling their stories.