Humans and other animals

I want a dog.

I have wanted a dog for a long time.  Wanting a pet,  though, I feel conflicted. Is my desire for an animal companion too selfish? Will I be indulgent when I feed a dog food that could perhaps have saved human lives somewhere?

Will I be acquiring a living being to be my slave companion? The dog’s life dedicated to making me a bit happier, maybe lowering my blood pressure a little?

I had had two turtles and a couple of goldfish back at the far reaches of my memory. My real animal experiences were three: the yellow labrador retriever I grew up with and, much later, two gorgeous ferrets I shared with my son.

And now, I seem to be back to goldfish again, but that’s another story entirely…

Maybe not with the turtles and the fish, but my relationship with my dog and with the two ferrets was not one-sided. I cared about them not only because they made me happy, but I cared about them for themselves. I knew them as individuals. Each of them had unique personalities.

Peppy and Fox - the ferrets whose names came from a computer game - were each very different from the other. Fox was calm. Peppy was a bit nervous - he’d nip every once in a while. Even if they looked exactly the same, I would know Peppy from Fox in an instant. I’m sure that, in a room full of ferrets, I’d know Peppy and Fox from all the others - and they would know me.

And when each of these individuals eventually died, I was heart-broken. I cared for them and I missed their presence, and - especially - I did not want them to suffer. When they did, I suffered too. That is the definition of compassion.

Most of us have had such relationships with non-human animals. We know that our relationships with them can be meaningful and can be mutual. We bring joy to each other’s lives. We bring a sense of comfort to one another. We care for them and - at least with my dog - the caring was mutual. If I was distraught, I would quickly find her solicitous face near mine.

I want to talk about the other relationships we have with animals - the mostly long-distance ones that are involved in producing what we eat.

I know this is a complicated subject full of facts and full of disagreement.

I know that there are very diverse and conflicting views among us. Some feel that eating animals or any animal products is akin to the worst abuses of human slavery. Others feel that eating humanely raised animals or their milk or eggs is OK - that it is normal and ethically sound.

I am not for a moment going to try to suggest that you must or must not live a particular way.

There are hard discussions to be had - discussions that don’t begin with “you’re evil” - discussions that don’t polarize and create defensiveness. Important and scary discussions.

They are scary because they get to the heart of who we are and who we want to be.  These discussions challenge us to ask how compassionate we really are.

I suspect that every one of us is at least somewhat aware of what has come to be called factory farming. It is a system that involves little or no concern for animals as beings worthy of any measure of dignity. It is a system that aims to produce food at the lowest possible cost, and that means raising animals in cramped, artificial, painful, frightening, conditions. I won’t go into the details. Anyone who wants to know more can easily find out more.

It is hard to argue that factory farming is not cruel. It is,  however,  cost-effective.  It means that the cost of animal-based food has risen much less than other living costs for decades.

Fortunately, there is now an increasing amount of meat and eggs and milk produced under conditions where animals are treated more humanely.  Of course,  the price is much much higher, which places it out of reach for many people.

Many other reasons are advanced for not eating meat: There is the impact on human health, the inefficiency of land use it represents, and the enormous environmental of raising and processing animals for food. But, although those are important issues - issues that I think each of us needs to wrestle with on our own - that is not what I want to focus on today.

I want to talk about us - about you and about me - and our relationship to one another and to non-human animals. I want to talk about who we think we are, who we want to be, and how, as we talked about so much last month, what we do affects who we are becoming.

I love the poem we heard written by Hafiz.  A man comes to the wise Hafiz.  I imagine he's terribly proud of his visions -  visions that God has spoken to him.  How special he is.  How very spiritual. He is expecting Hafiz to proclaim him, too, a holy man - a spiritual man. After all, what could be more holy, more sought-after, more affirming, more indicative that he is becoming something great than to have God communicate directly with him.

And Hafiz brings him right back to the everyday. “Yeah, yeah” I hear him saying. “Enough about visions. Tell me about goats.”  Being spiritually mature is not about lofty visions.  It is not about great knowledge.  It is not about levitating off your meditation cushion, radiating light, or even feeling a sense of oneness.

It is about being living with oneness - being connected to all other beings - about caring and being compassionate to every creature.

I saw the Jain bird hospital spoken of in our second reading. The Jains are dedicated to not causing harm - to Ahimsa. Not only are they strict vegans, many Jains will wear masks to avoid inhaling and thus killing an insect. They may sweep the path ahead of them to reduce the risk of trampling a living being.

The difference between that and saying a prayer to God before tucking into a Sunday roast or a burger is vast.

Human beings have eaten animals for a very long time. Human beings have also wrestled with the morality of eating of animals for some time. There are the Jains, of course, but Hinduism bans the eating of cows and many Hindus and Buddhists are vegetarian. Christians have had food restrictions at times. Jews and Muslims avoid certain foods and, more relevant, their traditions specify methods of slaughter that are meant to be more humane.

A reluctance to eat animals has also been part of more modern thought, and not just recently. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw went too far beyond the civil, sensitive approach to dialog on the subject when he proclaimed “A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses.”

Most of us feel somewhat conflicted about eating animals. I stopped eating meat and poultry a long time ago, but I still eat fish and eggs and cheese. When I think about it, I am indeed conflicted. I have fish swimming in an aquarium in my office. They are known to me. I take care of them. I rush to feed them. I take great care of their living conditions, and I worry for them when they are not well.

I would not be comfortable eating them, but I eat other fish that suffer as they are caught and killed. I love cheese, but I have not had to be with the animals that provide the milk to see the conditions in which they live.

And, of course, I do not want to. I don’t want to watch fish being caught and processed. I, like most of us, want to turn away from pain and suffering. And this is exactly where our challenge comes.

If I see suffering and I am involved in that suffering, I have to resolve the tension between my action and my feelings of compassion. I either need to change my action or I need to suppress my compassion.

Compassion is a quality we extol. I doubt there are any among us who do not wish to be compassionate people. When I think of the people I admire most, they are in love with the world, feeling its joy and beauty fully - and also feeling its suffering fully. They are people who will laugh and smile with you, and are equally ready to cry with you.

Compassion is not easy. It is most often painful. We all have ways of pushing away the sorrows and suffering of the world. We might use humour.  We might avoid the news. We might pretend it's just not happening or jump to believe the most comforting claims of those who want us to buy their products.

When eating meat,  we are - at best - consuming an animal that lived a short but reasonably normal life.  We are consuming an animal that was an individual, with a personality, a history, and a look in its eye. It felt pain, perhaps not in the same way we do. It could feel something like joy - again - perhaps not exactly in the same way we do. Alarm, fear… these are not foreign to other animals.

This is are very difficult challenge for many, if not most of us. There is no one right answer, but there is a wrong answer. The wrong answer is turning away from compassion. The wrong answer is laughing it off and pretending it doesn’t matter.

Like Hafiz and so many others before him, Thomas Merton, the contemporary Christian mystic places connection and oneness at the pinnacle of what it means to be truly human. And for Merton, compassion is central to that oneness. “The whole idea of compassion” he writes “is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”

Compassion is not a way of being that we can turn on and off like a lightbulb. We can not cultivate compassion in one sphere of our lives and be hard-hearted elsewhere. If it appears so, one of these is false.

Compassion, like the temperature of a lake, is the same for all who enter. It can not be icy for one and welcomingly comfortable for another. If it is truly warm and embracing for your friends, it will be so for all who enter.

Let us recognise our oneness with each other, with all of humanity, and with all beings.

Let compassion be our guide.