How can you mend a broken heart?
How can you stop the rain from falling down?
How can you stop the sun from shining?
What makes the world go round . . .
Please help me mend my broken heart and let me live again.
How can you mend a broken heart?
- Barry and Robin Gibb
A few years back, a colleague called to talk over a life-defining experience. It had been quite some time since the incident and she wanted to hear my reflections. Lena had worked for two decades as an animal rescue volunteer. She also was an active animal advocate. Weekends and evenings were filled with handing out educational pamphlets at the supermarket and giving talks at Rotary, Boy Scouts, and any other venue that she could wedge herself into. Lena was a tireless, articulate voice for cats, dogs, lab mice – anyone with fur, feathers, or scales.
One evening, the rescue center where Lena worked took in a rooster who had been abandoned at their doorstep. He had been abused and mutilated. His eyes were open wide staring into space. A silent question hung over the staff and attending veterinarian as they attempted to calm the bird and staunch his wounds: Was euthanasia the most ethical and kindest act that could be offered? Wordlessly, the group concurred and euthanasia was administered. Lena recounts:
I had witnessed countless situations almost identical to this. But something unexpected happened. Something inside me disintegrated, crumbled. As that gentle spirit was put to rest, I fled and before I could reach the bathroom, retched in the hall corner. After a few minutes, the center director came out. She waited silently while I washed up then said: "If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t be here." She turned and left. The next day, I resigned. The following months found me gripped by a multitude of emotions - shame, anger, betrayal, grief, outrage, numbness, exhaustion, and confusion. Those feelings have muted, but remain. I still wonder what "handling it" really means.
Lena and I sat in silence after she finished her narrative. Afterward, we spoke, but I left the conversation feeling woefully inadequate. I could offer no real answer to her questions. The story of the Rooster, Lena, and the sharing lingered and worked its way deep down. It encapsulated the kaleidoscope of issues revolving around twin topics that are inarguably the most pivotal today: human relationships with other animals and human identity.
How we perceive our own species vis-à-vis others is foundational to how we live – what we eat, what we wear, how, when and why we interact with whom – everything. Until recently, humanity's apical position in the natural world was distinguished by what other animals supposedly lacked – intelligence, emotions, and self-awareness. Now, science has dispelled this fantasy with the open proclamation that cats, rats, dolphins, parrots – even taxonomically distant invertebrates such as octopi – possess comparable capacities to think, feel, and experience consciousness. The implications are dizzyingly immense. Humanity’s shadow born by nature reflects back with blinding truth: differences do not draw from cognitive disparities, rather from the fact that animals do not do unto us what we do unto them. It turns out that this idealization of human identity – empathy, loyalty, emotional intelligence, honesty, compassion – is not emblematic of modern humanity, but of other species. In symmetry, the savage “red in tooth and claw” is us.
Such self-knowledge is not easy to swallow. We have become a self-hating species that threatens its own extinction. Lena’s story is the story of our times. The story of Everyman. Violence against nature has seeped into the interstices of everyday human interactions transmitted through witnessing and ricochets back within a walled vacuum created by the exigency of saving lives and brimming suffering. Lack of compassion for other animals has drained compassion for each other. How can one “handle” senseless, infinite pain and the ceaseless suffering of innocents? What does “handling it well” mean? How, as Peter Singer posed, are we to live?
These age-old questions have seeded ancient spiritual traditions that offer answers, but in turn demand a searing price: indiscriminate forgiveness. A cessation of violence against others requires a parallel cessation of violence against ourselves, as individuals and as a species. Core to this mandate is learning to discern forgiveness from condonation – acceptance born of indifference. The task may be Sisyphean, particularly for those who feel the pain of other animals most keenly. But it is achievable. Not all humans have made animal suffering requisite to their identity and social contract. So, what seems to be the impossible is indeed very plausible. Now is the time to commit unwaveringly to an old path, the one that takes us back to a space and place of being animal.