Compassion, Korea, and The Little Prince

by Don Dimock


Half a century ago, I was an Army medic during the Korean war. My last duty assignment in Korea was at the prisoner of war hospital on Kojedo Island. There I met and cared for sick and injured enemy soldiers. These were men, many were boys, really, whom I was told were my mortal enemies.

Lonely, and far from my home in Hawaii, I had seen far too much war, suffering, and destruction. I desperately needed friendship. I tried to treat the prisoners compassionately. They were just boys, I realized, who had been forced into war by their government. It was the same as for the draftees on our side--with much worse consequences if they refused. Some spoke at least some English. We became acquainted with each other. One might say that in a few cases we "tamed" each other. Some of these bondings became very close. In one instance a Chinese boy, about seventeen years old, extended an open invitation to me. "When this stupidity is over please come and visit me in China. Please!" He spoke from his aching heart. We had bonded far more closely that either of us had expected to.

We were lost in a foreign land. In some ways the Chinese boy might be compared to the little prince in Antoine de Saint Exupery's classic work. The Chinese boy was far from home, too. He, too, was lonely and was reaching out for friendship. He differed in that he had not chosen to make his trip to Korea at all.

In the story, Saint Exupery was forced down with engine trouble while flying over the African desert. I, like the wrecked pilot, was trying to "fix my engine" so that I could get out of Korea while I still had some sanity left.

The little prince set about making friends as soon as he reached planet earth. Compassion was essential to his mission on earth and was the reason he made the trip from his native asteroid in space.

Upon landing on earth the little prince first met a golden snake. The snake could have killed him in a matter of seconds. However, instead they made friendly conversation, and an important agreement was reached.

Next, the little prince met a fox. One of the first things he told the fox was that he was looking for friends. The fox, then, asked to be his friend.

"Tame me," said the fox.

"What does that mean--'tame'?"

"It is too often neglected," said the fox. "It means to establish ties.

"To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys."

Then the little prince asked: "What must I do to tame you?"

"You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down at a little distance from me--like that--in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me each day. . ."

"And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

Thus we are given one of the great secrets of true compassion. We must be patient and see with our hearts rather than with our eyes. We must recognize the unique individuality of the other. Then we can establish lasting ties.

When the fox sees the little prince as only a little boy, who is like a hundred thousand other little boys, he has reduced him to a statistic. He has classified him. The little prince is pigeon-holed as a "little boy." It is only when he is taken out of that pigeon hole that he can be recognized as the unique individual that he really is. In the process of taming the fox, the fox, too, must be removed from the pigeon hole labeled: "foxes."

In our political life we often tend to sort people statistically. This, the same as for the little prince, destroys the individuality of the people we are talking about. We may classify people as "enemy soldiers." Sometimes we classify and pigeon hole ourselves. For instance, ten percent, or two percent, or fifteen percent of the male population is gay. Are we so much the same that a statistical classification adequately describes us? Are we not individuals? Are we not, each one of us, every bit as individual as the little prince?

To be truly compassionate, then, we cannot regard people statistically. We can only relate to individuals. We can only establish ties with individuals, not with items in a statistical group.

There are dangers, or course. Wars will become impossible if people stop statistically classifying each other. This can disappoint some members of our government. Once we begin to regard people as individuals, unintentional bonding can occur. Bonding can occur by accident as well as by intention. We will watch each other out of the corners of our eyes. Compassion can blossom. We might even tame one another!

Compassion is lasting. Though lovers may break up, the relationship never completely ends. Memories remain.

As the fox points out: "Men have forgotten this truth. But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."

This is not to say that some aspects of relationships never end. The little prince returned to his home on Asteroid B-612 with the assistance of the golden snake. He had tamed a rose on his home asteroid. The rose loved the little prince and the little prince loved the rose. He was responsible for it. He was torn between his responsibility to the rose, to the fox, the snake, and especially to Saint Exupery. He and Saint Exupery will never meet again on earth. However, the little prince could not abandon his responsibility to him completely. He promised to look down from his asteroid, so that, in the twinkling of the stars, the aviator would hear him laughing and know he was all right.

For Saint Exupery the parting was more difficult. He felt his ties to the little prince acutely. He felt responsible. He wondered if the little prince would be all right back on his star. He left the following instructions in hope that he would be kept informed about the little prince.

"Look at [the star] carefully so that you will be sure to recognize it in case you travel some day to the African desert. And, if you should come upon this spot please do not hurry on. Wait for a time, exactly under the star. Then if a little man appears who laughs, who has golden hair and who refuses to answer questions, you will know who he is. If this should happen, please comfort me. Send me word that he has come back."

You see, they had tamed each other and they can never completely shuck off their responsibility for each other--forever.

I sadly think sometimes of that boy I knew on Kojedo island so many years ago. You see, we had accidentally tamed each other. We were no longer the statistics that our respective governments had dictated to us. We had recognized each other as unique individuals capable of compassion.

I bitterly regret that I never made the trip to China to visit that boy. I hope that he is laughing happily somewhere in China. And if you should happen to go to China some day, and if you should happen to meet him, please tell me if he is all right. I really do want to know.

Don Dimock lives in a small town in Oregon.