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Bridget Gleeson Travel Writer

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Compassion at home, compassion on the road

It’s not a good week to be a Pennsylvania girl.

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More to the point, it’s not a good week for anyone affiliated with Penn State University. We’re suffering through a scandal, maybe you’ve heard of it? Last night, after I’d gone to sleep in faraway Buenos Aires, it was announced that Penn State’s legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, had been fired, and that the university president had stepped down in the wake of a sickening sex scandal involving underprivileged 10-year-old boys, a pedophile football staffer, and several famous figureheads who, according to the official reports, just looked the other way instead of contacting the police.

Now, I don’t bleed blue and white. I’m not exactly a proud Penn Stater. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of my energy trying to get away from small-town Pennsylvania. But I also wouldn’t deny who I am or where I’m from. And the truth is this: my family is a part of that community. I studied English literature there. My father is a professor of medicine on Penn State’s faculty; my brother is a medical student at the same school and hospital.

Who is Penn State? We are, I guess.

When I first heard reports of the scandal earlier this week, I ignored it. I’ve been too busy drawing maps of Prague for Lonely Planet and planning a route through central Chile’s national parks for my next assignment. I didn’t have time or interest in the dirty details of some football coach drama back in my home state – no time or interest at all. That changed when I received an e-mail yesterday from one of my dearest old friends, a Penn State classmate, now a Harvard PhD – someone who, like me, has never been part of the blue and white masses. He sent me a note and said he was crying at work while reading the news. That snapped me right to attention.

There’s a lot to be said; I’m not necessarily interested in adding one more voice to the uproar. I simply feel that at the heart of it all is a failure to practice compassion for other human beings. In this case, some things – money, power, reputation – have clearly been valued over compassion for individuals – in this case, defenseless children.

This sad story contains a simple, powerful lesson – no matter who you are or where you live or what position you hold, looking the other way is dangerous. When we fail to value human life, we are capable of atrocities.

At Penn State, the stakes were incredibly high – the damages too massive to quantify. There is no excuse for what has happened. But what is the practice of compassion? It’s trying to see yourself in someone else, whether it’s easy or difficult.

And so I force myself to think about ‘looking the other way’ on a small, day-to-day scale that doesn’t involve celebrities and millions of dollars. The other night I was walking along Avenida de Mayo, back to my apartment after dinner, and I saw a homeless woman sleeping on the sidewalk. As I passed by, I noticed there was a baby, too, a little girl about the same age as my niece Luisa. The baby looked up at me in the dark. I kept walking. What was I supposed to do? I don’t know. But I’ve been thinking about that baby all week, every time I take Luisa to the park or tuck her into her little white bed or feed her from a bottle. I don’t know what I was supposed to do, what I could have done, but I know I failed somehow.

Thinking back over the ugly events of this week, at least I feel grateful that I’m living a life (and working at a job) that encourages community and the practice of identification with other people. Everyday, whether I’m in Buenos Aires or Prague or Santiago, I have to try to understand who the locals are and why they do what they do – and where I can fit into that. That’s the beauty of travel. On Sunday night I found myself at my first-ever Gay Pride march right here in Buenos Aires. How great is it that my sister and brother-in-law are already exposing their 11-month-old baby to this celebration of diversity?

And thanks to an assignment from a travel magazine, I’ve spent all week educating myself about Libya’s civil war, earthquake destruction in Japan and poverty in Haiti so that I can put together a report on where it’s safe to travel. It’s been hard to read some of this stuff. But I’m a better person, I think, for knowing the details, and I’m happy to be in a line of work where learning about other cultures is asked of me everyday.

In the wake of such horrifying events at my alma mater, it’s tempting to distance myself from Pennsylvania and just bury myself in my travel plans. But that would be missing the point. It’s the lack of human compassion – the failure to recognize ourselves in another person, however big or small – that allowed this tragedy to happen in the first place.