"In an aversion to animals," wrote Walter Benjamin, "the predominant feeling is fear of being recognized by them through contact. The horror that stirs deep in man is an obscure awareness that in him something lives so akin to the animal that it might be recognized."
Recently, I was walking through the upper meadow of our property (we live on ten rural acres east of Seattle), when I startled a coyote who had just ripped into a juvenile rabbit. The coyote either wasn’t very clever, or not very hungry, or was perhaps especially frightened, because in any event, she dropped the rabbit and loped away, leaving me to confront a small, bedraggled, hopelessly lacerated fellow mammal, whose intestines were slithering onto the ground, but who was still very much alive. We looked into each other’s eyes. I don’t know what the poor rabbit saw – whether it “recognized” me somehow – but in its large and painfully beautiful eyes, I recognized a fellow creature, with an awareness that (pace Mr. Benjamin), wasn’t at all obscure, and whose “horror” resided not in my sense of our connection, but rather, in my knowing that the creature was not only dying, but that in view of that connection, I had a humane obligation to finish what the coyote had started.
Reader, I snapped its small, scrawny neck (physically easy - emotionally, not so much) thereby ending its suffering ... but initiating a fair amount of my own.
For me – and, I’m sure for many others – Darwin was altogether correct when he noted that “there is grandeur in this view of life,” that we are all connected, all of us sharing ancestry and thus, sharing in the very fabric of our existence. There is also (albeit rarely), horror – as when we are confronted with the convergence of connectedness and suffering. I also suspect, nonetheless, that Walter Benjamin was also correct, and that for many people, there is horror simply in the recognition that they and the beasts are connected at all, and that for some, the very awareness of this connection is itself a source of suffering. After all, we are supposed to be special, godly, chips off the Old Divine Block, uniquely graced with an immortal soul and given our marching orders in Genesis to have dominion over the other, lowly and less angelic creatures.
Fortunately, there are alternative voices, and not only those of evolutionary biologists. Even Christianity – not especially inclined toward a benevolent view of the natural world – has spawned a growing, albeit minority ethic of stewardship for “the creation.” I would like to think that a comparable spark of “enlightened organicity” stirs somewhere in Islam, although thus far, I haven’t seen any clear indications. Undoubtedly, the most recognition-friendly spiritual tradition is that of Buddhism, especially as it has been manifest in the recent development of “engaged Buddhism,” which goes far beyond the stereotype of detached meditators concerned with maximizing their inner peace, burnishing their personal karma and indifferent to the hemorrhaging rabbits all around us.
A key Buddhist insight (some might say, the key insight), is the not-so-simple reality of unavoidable interconnectedness – pratitya-samutpada in Sanskrit – often translated as “dependent co-arising.” The contemporary Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has dubbed it “interbeing,” emphasizing that the Buddhist notion of “no-self” does not deny the obvious fact that each of us exists; rather, it points to the less obvious but no less crucial fact that none of us exists alone, apart from other people, other creatures, other aspects of the environment, whether organic or inorganic. Each of us, each “self,” is composed entirely of “non-self elements” and thus, we “inter-are.”
"If you are a poet," writes Thich Nhat Hanh, in an oft-quoted passage, "you will see that there is a cloud in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper." The beloved Vietnamese monk goes on to include the logger who cut the trees, the logger's mother, and so forth. If you, too, can see the cloud in a sheet of paper, then maybe you also are a poet, a Zen master ... or an intuitive biologist. But regardless of who sees it, there really is a cloud in a sheet of paper, as well as a bark beetle, a handful of soil, a bit of bird poop, even the gasoline that powered the logger's chain saw. It is even possible that if you were to chronicle the history of your own carbon atoms, you would find that they were once part of Peter the Great, a woolly mammoth, or (and) a Komodo dragon, before they found themselves incorporated into you.
And also into that rabbit.
In finishing what the coyote had started, I would like to think that I was acting out a version of Walter Benjamin’s awareness, but one that is neither obscure nor horrible, but rather is unavoidable, profound, and quite wonderful.
Copyright David P. Barash