For seven hours last weekend, Ashley Smith was held hostage in her apartment by Brian Nichols, the gunman who had escaped from an Atlanta courthouse and allegedly killed four people before showing up at her door. Nichols promised not to hurt her if she cooperated, and by the end of her ordeal, Smith had made him pancakes, read to him from Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life," and talked to him about her family and her faith. She is credited with getting him to surrender to police. We asked Sharon Salzberg what role she thought compassion played in this story.
What qualities of Ashley Smith would you attribute to her presence of mind during this ordeal?
Well, she says, apparently, that it was her faith, that she had a very strong spiritual upbringing, religious upbringing even though she'd had kind of a tough life-this is what came to the fore.
But the thing I found most interesting was-and it's not just her story, it's his story-the things that he said. You know, when he said "I feel like I'm already dead." She touched the place where he was still alive and still human.
What do you think Nichols meant when he told her he was "already dead"?
I think that was probably his internal experience, he's so disconnected. When he looked at the television he said, "I can't believe that's me." He's a multi-faceted human being like we all are, and there's some part of him that could not bear acknowledging what he had done.
When he said, "I don't want to hurt anyone anymore, I just need some rest," I think she was responding to something in him that most of us would not have enough presence of mind to be seeking. And it made him feel like a human being with hope, in effect, when she said, "You can help people in prison." You know, you can do something positive in your life and it was just so eerie when he asked her, apparently, at the end, "Would you like me to hang your curtains?"
Yeah, but it almost is like she made him feel real again, and they were real to each other; she wasn't just an object to be discarded. She could display her own humanity so meaningfully that it wasn't that easy to kill her.
Do you think that this story has something to tell us about the power of compassion?
Yes, but it's also important not to just get into the fairy tale part of it. The woman he allegedly raped apparently tried to appeal to his better side too.
It's not that we'll always vanquish wrongdoing, but sometimes you can see the incredible power of compassion. She saw enough in him to relate to him, as when she read him that chapter from the book she was reading-as though to say to him, you are a person, you can open to the good, you can change. That's an extraordinary act of compassion.
The language Nichols uses suggests a Christian background: he told her that they were "brother and sister in Christ." Do you think she could have gotten through to him as successfully if she was a just-as-compassionate Buddhist or Muslim or of some other faith?
Yes. I mean, I don't know, of course, but it was good that it was the language of his childhood and his upbringing. And so that was a link, a very accessible link. But I would like to think she could have gotten through to him without a word.
Yes, through her being. Or I would like to think that whatever words she used, whatever language or metaphor she used, that it was the place she was coming from that cut through his panic, his disconnection, his ability to harm and kill others. She just cut through to something else inside of him or something that co-existed inside of him.
And how would you explain what that was she used to cut through?
For me, it would be compassion. I suppose she may more readily say faith, but it comes down to the same thing. because it wasn't the conventional kind of faith that says everything was going to be just fine. It was some kind of faith in his being a child of God, you could say-or having that potential also, and so that's what she was speaking to.
And the living form of that is compassion, when we see the terrible things that others have done and we don't deny that-it's not like pretending they are not as terrible as they are, but at the same time, there's some bond that's felt with that person which is not an ordinary bond. It's something that is recognizing something in them, and it's the same in terms of the way we relate to ourselves.
We learned that her husband died in her arms four years ago. Do you think the fact that this alleged murderer showed up at her door could be synchronistic at all, maybe even karmic? Or would you just chalk it up to chance?
(Laughs) Well, I couldn't chalk anything up to chance! I mean, karma is another word that is very hard to understand because it doesn't mean fate exactly, that everything is sort of pre-ordained. But, it does point to connections and interrelationships, dynamic interplays that go way beyond what we can understand with our rational, linear minds.
So, it really would be too simplistic to say that it was karma.
I think karma is quite a bit more complicated than that, but at the same time, I don't think it's chance.
It struck me that there is something beautiful about the way she interacted with him.
I keep coming back to him and his saying, at least as she reports it, "I feel like I'm already dead." And I think he came back to life in a way. And I think what dies inside of us that allows us to hurt other people, and how I really believe ultimately there's got to be a way of that coming back to life.
There's a quotation in "Dead Man Walking" where Sister Helen is working with whoever is about to be executed, and she wants to go see the execution. He tells her, I don't want you to go through that. And she says, I want the last face you see to be the face of love, I'll be the face of Jesus Christ for you-something like that. I think that's the kind of thing [that's happening here]-not that this woman loved her captor in the ordinary sense of the word-but that's what a really pure compassion is, it's a reminder of something in us that you could say is divine.
Because of the way her husband died, one could argue that Smith had a good excuse to have a closed, hardened heart. But she chose to open her heart to Nichols. What do you think makes some people close up and others open up after a tragedy?
We all suffer-not always as terribly as these people-but we all have some amount of suffering in our lives, and it's one the most fascinating spiritual questions: How is it that some people emerge from that suffering with compassion and a sense of really wanting to help and other people emerge withdrawn and bitter?
I think it's some kind of faith that happens-not the ordinary, casual meaning of faith like "Oh, everything's going to be fine" or "Someone's going to take care of me"-but more a sense of faith in a bigger picture of life and one's own inner strength. And I don't mean in a personal sense, like "I have a lot of courage and you're really a scaredy-cat." It's more like some sense of potential inside of everybody-even when it's covered over and hard to even fathom that it's there-that there's some potential in the human heart for compassion, for understanding, for change, for wisdom. I think that when we get in touch with that, we feel connected to a greater whole instead of feeling so torn asunder from life because of our pain.