Occasional Philosophical Musings

On sadness and the maturity of feeling


Walking to the café this morning, passing the small hospital near my flat, I watched a young couple approaching, the woman holding her baby in her arms, a pacifier in the baby’s mouth. The mother was crying; the father’s expression distraught. I suppose they were on their way to the hospital, and I can only assume the baby was sick. It is also possible they were going to visit a relative or friend in the hospital. I don’t know. But they were sad, and then I was sad, too; sad still.

I’ve had this photo residing in my computer for a long time. I don’t remember where it came from, but I do remember that the caption was “woman holding her dead child.” I kept it because it reminds me of sadness.

For at least the first third of my life I killed living things, almost whimsically. I hunted: killing squirrels, various and sundry birds, frogs, snakes, turtles, a deer once, and countless fish. I was thoughtlessly sunk in a pretense of manhood. I liked killing things. Anything short of humans and animals commonly regarded as pets would do. Every once in a while, rarely, I ate something I killed, but food wasn’t and isn’t the point of hunting. No one needs to hunt for food, at least no one living in anything close to the civilized world. We hunt for the thrill of killing some living thing; or because we can. The power of the tool of killing — gun, knife, bow — makes some of us lose our sensitivity to the utter value of life.

I find the religious, notably the Christian, rationalizations for this kind of killing to be especially obnoxious. All that “dominion over the earth and all its creatures” sort of bullshit. But this corrupt justification is as commonly used as the great white hunter going after the family’s meat bullshit.

At some point, and I don’t remember just when exactly, but well after reaching middle age, seeing death and suffering began making me sad, and I mean really sad. I begin feeling each sadness personally, and I began feeling the need to mourn every death — every death: animals, insects, and of course people. From the boy who blissfully blew bloody holes in any animal he found while hunting, to the man who walks around bugs on a sidewalk to avoid killing one.

I am a sentient being, a feeling animal. I began projecting what I can sense, what I can feel (fear, anger, love, sadness …) into every other sentient, feeling animal. So I could no longer enjoy the meat I ate, because I knew that if I were that chicken, or that pig, or that cow, or that whatever, I would not want such a fate for myself; because I empathized with the death and suffering of that animal. What gives me the right to enslave, torture, murder other animals because I want to wear their skin or eat their meat? Does “right” come from ability? Because I can, it is right?

I know animals are sentient. I know they feel pain, express emotions — they fear, they hurt, they protect their young, they love in their way. I know this the same way I know the man and woman seated at the next table feel these things, even though I cannot be in their heads or their bodies. I know by empathy and projection. I am a sentient being and I have these feelings; am I the only one? Of course not, because all sentient beings feel, that is what the word means.

So suffering and death make me sad. One person’s malevolent cancer is mine; one baby’s death projects my own; pigs running in panic from the slaughter are in what ways different from the victims of Nazi or Soviet state murderers fleeing their fate?

When one becomes closer to the end than to the beginning, feeling matures. Would that it could happen much sooner for us all.

Do animals mourn?


Do animals fear?


Do animals grieve?



Do animals love?


Do animals suffer and fear to feed us?


We have no more evidence to believe otherwise than we have evidence to believe these things about the human animal. All we know is how what we see in experience registers with what we know of ourselves.

When humans are able to understand this, the world, which contains the possibility of great joy, love, and charity, while still fraught with sadness and tragedy, will be a better place to live for us all.


2 replies »

  1. two nights ago i chanced upon this web site of bereavement photography:


    and cried my eyes out for an hour or two. I’m not ‘old’ enough to fathom how people’s feelings mature as they age. for me, i’ve always been that way since i was conscious of the outside world (that’d be 4 years old for most of us, i guess). as a small kid, i already reflected on the significance of death – the grief and regret that come with one’s radical vanishing. when i saw a dead cat – my family always had, or lived close to animals – i grieved for the pain it’d gone through, its transition to a world unknown to me, and for its companions. often times, i wanted to die, and i considered different ways of killing myself (jumping out of the windows, stabbing a knife into my chest, stealing the bottle of bills in the cupboard) but never had the guts to do so, ha. i was around 7 then. in my imagination, death would be the only way for my life and sadness to truly register in the adults’ mind. okay, that is off the topic…

    by the way i got your email – reports sound hardcore, but i’ll be looking forward to getting the books.

    • God, this persistent superstition most humans cling to, has mystified me since I gained the ability of rational, logical, critical thinking — late, maybe, because I was already in my late teens by then. Since then, now 50 years later, this inexplicable and odd belief in what most people think of and name God, not only continues to mystify me, but often leaves me both frustrated and angry with the human propensity toward abject dumbness.

      I say this in the beginning to say something else: The website you offer in your comment is proof, not of assuaging bereavement, but proving that the God of common belief is completely nonsensical, and worse, frankly malevolent. There is no explanation, nothing in the furtherest depths of rationalization, that can claim on the one hand a purely benevolent, omnipresent, omniscient, loving entity by whatever name created all livings things, then on the other hand (a madman’s act) leaves them all to agonize in suffering. (Is this an entertainment?)

      Should there be such an entity of the type described by the human term God, then far from being a loving and benevolent “heavenly father,” it would by common human experience be an evil, cruel, insane being.

      Proof there cannot possibly exist the God of common superstition: suffering and death of the innocent. There is no reasonable argument against that. Any attempt is pathetic rationalizing, a desperation to sustain the superstition.

      The important question for human kind to consider is why is this superstition necessary? For the churches, there is profit to be made, but what of the others?

      To what you wrote about your childhood compulsions to experience death. First, one is, I am, glad you didn’t take that idea very far. Here is what I think of suicide: Can anything, anything at all, be so horrible that permanent, infinite nothingness be an improvement? I cannot imagine this, but maybe I have not, fortunately, faced an experience where an infinite nothing would be preferable to any potential something. Suicide is often a passing, if terrible, notion, like getting a tattoo. A little time changes one’s mind. But take away all future time … .

      Death is, or seems to be from my contemplation of it, nothing more than becoming the same non-state the person was in before the random joining of a sperm and an egg eventually grew a person, or any animal. What you were and what you knew and felt before your existence through the sperm-egg conjunction is what you will be when you die.

      So obviously one might find solace in the belief that your old eternal granddad is going to welcome you someplace up there, but remember, it’s the same old eternal granddad that tortured and killed babies, allowed tyrants and wars, and gave us cancers to hurry along our trip to the heavens.

      Thank you for your always honest commenting, Nicole.