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.
Categories: Occasional Philosophical Musings