Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Compassion and Cruelty

In which we sit in the dark and watch the snow fall, consider the fate of sled dogs in Canada, and contemplate a cure for cruelty.

Rikki and Treasure
What causes cruelty?

Last night, I couldn't sleep. It was the thought of two, possibly three, feet of snow, arriving while I slept. This kept me up, watching out the window, watching the snow fall down in thousands and thousands and thousands of flakes. Sometimes it drifted slowly, performing a hypnotic dance in the light of the street lamps. At other times the fall was furious, as if the sky were spitting snow, hurling the tiny crystals of ice down in an angry bombardment.

I've never seen three feet of snow before. I was  frightened, and fascinated.

While I kept watch by my upstairs window, I kept the computer open;  the waves that wash the aether brought me a story about the brutal execution of a hundred unwanted sled dogs in British Columbia. It's not easy reading. It turns the stomach, sickens the soul.

I am concerned with the care of feral cats; I am involved in a very small way with animal rescue. You may conclude from that, and you would be right, that I'm an animal lover. I want to help. I yearn for a world where children and women and dogs and cats and men can live happy, safe, healthy lives together. I yearn for the Peaceable Kingdom.

The article about the dogs left me weeping, and feeling utterly, miserably helpless. Concerned as I am for the care of the weak, I receive a daily stream of pleas for help, from websites, emails, social networks, and occasionally, from a face-to-face contact. There are so many animals in need of adoption. So many students who need to be tutored. So many neighborhood committees that need volunteers. I'm sure you've felt it, too, for you would not likely be reading this blog if you were someone who didn't care. It can be overwhelming at times, the cruelty of the world; it can leave us feeling helpless to effect a cure. The task is so great; there are so many in need. The workers are so few. The funds so elusive.

I do what I think I can. I participate in caring for a neighborhood feral cat colony under the Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) protocols of Alley Cat Allies. I use the Goodsearch search engine for all my internet searches, collecting thereby what money I can for Stray Rescue of St. Louis. I talk to anyone and everyone who will tolerate me doing so about TNR and managed colonies. I write this blog. I pray. If I find my neighbors' dogs out running loose, I try to see them safely home. Occassionally, I even get to assist in a small way with helping a neighborhood cat to find a forever home. I try to make the compassionate choices when it comes to what I eat. These are tiny things;  I am but a tiny person. I'm not wealthy or connected or powerful. Still, like so many of us, I try to help. I do what I can.

Reading a story like this one, about a hundred beautiful, trusting, loyal animals, discarded because they were no longer "useful", slaughtered in the cruelest of fashions, it shakes your foundations. I didn't know, I didn't know, I weep into the night. And what if I had known? Would I have had the resources, financial and otherwise, to mount a rescue? Am I that powerful?

In the cold, dark silence of the night, I know that I am not.

I come face to face with the realization that all we are doing is putting small bandages, bandaids even, on a gaping wound. It's as if our patient lay before us, chest cracked open in readiness for a quadrupal bipass. But the surgery team throws up their hands in despair and depart. We are left to our own devices with this patient, her blood pumping out over our clumsy hands.

I gaze out the window into the semi-darkness of the city street at midnight, ice pouring from the sky, and wonder, what causes cruelty?

That's the real issue, I think. If we could get to the root of that, if only we could treat the disease and not the symptoms. Now that would be making another kind of progress altogether.

I consider cruelty in its myriad guises. Why do we hurt one another? From the slaughter of sled dogs, to the violent or sexual abuse of a child; from the one up-manship we indulge in around the water cooler, to the atrocities of war; from gossip and exclusion and cliquish behaviour to serial murder. Why do we do it? Why do we reach out and hurt one another and the beings, cats and dogs and all their kin, who live among us?

It's four in the morning; the spousal unit's alarm clock goes off, and he slaps the snooze bar. I crawl back into bed, under the blankets, and poke him awake.

"Why makes people mean," I ask him. He often has very useful things to say.

"Mmmm?" He's groggy, still half asleep.

"Why do you think people do mean things?" I repeat. He sits up on one elbow, looks at me in the half darkness.

"Has someone been mean to you?" I'm touched by his gentle chivalry. I smile.

"No." It's true. No one has been mean to me in a very, very long time. "I just wonder what you think it is that makes people do mean things." He flops back onto his back, and we lie in companionable meditation, staring at the ceiling together, considering this. I don't tell him about the article. About the poor, executed sled dogs. Not yet. That's no way to start your morning.

"Well," he says eventually, after giving the snooze bar another smack, "I think it's because they're afraid."

"I think it's fear."

I consider that, until the sleeplessness of the night catches up with me, and I drift off for a nap. I'm still thinking about it later, over coffee and oatmeal and the morning paper. I think he's right.

I do believe there are essentially only two ways of approaching the world; there are two extremes, and everything in between is a mix of these approaches. My opinion is this: we either try to meet the world with love and compassion, or we try to dominate it. Of course, every interaction is a mixture, depending on where each of us is on the continuum at any given day, at any given moment, with any given person.

To meet the world with love, with compassion, this makes us vulnerable. If we open our arms we can easily be stabbed in the heart. Love is not a defensive posture.  It's hard to take that vulnerable stance. And yet, when we're not afraid, when we're not in pain, when there are enough resources and we know and feel in our guts that we are standing in a place of abundance, compassion becomes easier. The alley cats in our colony are extremely well fed. I have seen mockingbirds and robins join them at the feeding trays, and go unmolested. What might our own society be like if we were not locked into the eternal competition for resources?

Then I thought about the flip side of that, about the times we find ourselves responding to the world with a posture of agression, or of defense. When the energy brought into play is the energy of the power struggle, the struggle for domination. It doesn't have to be as dramatic as an army mobilized and sent to war. It's the same energy when I try to parley my education, my dress, my social standing into intimidation in an interaction with a clerk perhaps, or a city beaurocrat, or a customer service rep. I see it at my corner coffee house every week; some well shined person strolls to the counter, sneering. By tone and body language she does everything possible to make the bright young woman behind the counter feel inferior, as if because she serves, she is a servant, and therefore somehow less. Why do we do this? Why indulge in this petty cruelty?

It gives me pause to consider the spousal unit's wisdom:  "It's fear," he said. It's because we're afraid that we grasp for the shimmering mirage of power, of control, of domination.

When I can look at my fellow customer in the corner coffee house, obnoxious as she, quite literally, stares down her nose at the rest of us, when I can look at her and think, "My God, she must be terrified," then something like compassion can be conceived inside of me. The energy can begin to change.

Those who live with and love and work with animals know that when an animal is terrified, he'll lash out. Shouting or striking back is not the solution; it produces no good result. The way to treat a frightened animal is to offer kindness, to offer gentleness, to offer compassion.

And with that, Gentle Reader, we stumble upon, I think, a great Truth. I am not, in fact, and neither are you, helpless to do something to bring relief the ones who suffer, whether they go in coats of skin, or fur, or feather. I do believe in the butterfly effect. I do believe that, by increasing the amount of compassionate energy in the world, we decrease the other kind.

The poor sled dogs are gone; but I can be kind to the people with whom I come in contact, day by day. I can do it for them.  I can refrain from making the cutting remark, either verbally or in my thoughts, that might seem to be funny, to give me pleasure. I can look at someone who has just "been mean," either via email or social media or even face-to-face, and remind myself, as I would in dealing with a wounded animal, that they are in great pain and terrible fear. Only pain and fear could cause such cruelty. I can water and nurture the tiny sprig of compassion that struggles to be born in my own heart.

I am not suggesting that we stop our efforts to do something active: to volunteer at shelters, to tutor the struggling student, to donate our time and fortunes where we can. But let us remember, perhaps, there are other things we can do as well. Let us begin in our own hearts, each moment. And may compassion, like a virulent virus, sweep the world, until one day, just maybe, we can indeed live together in the Peaceable Kingdom.

stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of shortstories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjecs: cats , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com.

And a quick PS:  Below is a video, about twenty minutes long.  It's a TED talk by Brene Brown titled "The Power of Vulnerability." When you can comfortably settle in and enjoy the twenty minutes and twenty seconds of Brene's presentation, the video will be here waiting for you. I found it via Rowdy Kittens, and have shared it with everyone who'll stand still long enough to let me push it off on them. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will inspire you and give you hope. I can't recommend it enough. Check it out when you have time.

Hugs and snugs!~~stlcatlady


  1. Thank you for this post. It is something I have always believed about cruelty in every form. I, too, love animals and feel so much pain over the sled dogs. I have a dog, I love my dog and I understand dogs and I find this all so painful. I work with cats, I live with them and I love them. Cruelty to animals has been with us forever and for some reason, I find that the hardest to deal with. I think it is because they are so helpless and their are so few resources in their corner. When I heard about the dogs I had to hold mine and tell him he was very special to me. These images of cruelty just make me work harder at helping animals. Hugs, Deb

  2. I also think that a the feeling of being totally alone makes people mean. They feel like no one knows what they are going though. Lonely people get mean or hopeless and both are very bed.

  3. I've been thinking more about this cruelty and compassion thing. Deb, warm hugs to your beautiful dog as well. I think about cruelty to the weak, to children, to animals, to the poor, to anyone different or weaker in anyway. Strawberry mentions that feeling totally alone makes people mean. I think that's true, too. After thinking some more, I think maybe it has something to do with feeling unloved, perhaps? So I guess, we keep doing what we can, reaching out with compassion and with respect whenever and wherever we can.And I remind myself that we each have to keep our OWN batteries charged, so to speak, in order to be able to do that reaching, that loving.

    Here's hugs and warm wishes of goodwill to all of you out there.