In what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible...
- Stephen Jay Gould
It has been hard to find answers after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Hard to find hope after the deaths of innocent children and the school staff who gave their lives to protect those in their charge. Prayer has helped. Poetry. Music.
Yet I found the most comfort in an unlikely place: a photograph from an ancient burial site, and the moving story behind it. Australian archaeologists Lorna Tilley and Marc Oxenham excavated the 4,000-year-old Man Bac site, in what is now northern Vietnam, and uncovered one grave that stood out from the rest.
Unlike the other skeletons at Man Bac, which lay straight, the young man buried in this grave was curled in the fetal position, his head pillowed on a rock. Closer examination and analysis of his bones showed that he was born with a disabling fusion of the spine. His condition deteriorated so that he became paralyzed from the waist down in childhood and had minimal use of his arms. Still, the archaeologists determined, he lived for another 10 years with “severe, most probably total, incapacitation.”
He would have been completely dependent on others for survival. The people in his community came through. Their own existence could not have been easy—they lived by hunting and fishing and did not have metal tools—but they took care of this disabled young man, made sure he was fed and protected. And they laid him to rest with the same care.
I was struck by Tilley’s interpretation of this young man’s survival. She believes it shows not only a culture of tolerance but also an individual who, despite being radically different from the people around him, had “a sense of his own worth and a strong will to live.”
This is not the first archaeological find—and it won’t be the last—to demonstrate that prehistoric people, civilizations far less developed than our own, took care of and made accommodations for the chronically ill and disabled so that they could live among them.
Maybe now more than ever, we need these reminders that the greatest gifts we are given—and can give—are compassion, kindness and love.
Amy Wong is the executive editor of Guideposts and was a founding editor of Positive Thinking. She lives in New York City with her adopted dog, Winky, a natural-born positive thinker who believes that everyone has a treat for her and every day is the best day of her life. Amy hopes to be that optimistic someday (she’s working on it!).