Wednesday, March 9, 2011

To Bear With Unbearable Sorrow

Don Quixote by Gustav Dore
"I come in a world of iron to make a world of gold." ~~Don Quixote de la Mancha

It's cold today; cold and gray. It feels more like November than March. I look out of my second story window, out across the street. Bare and bony tree limbs still reach towards a winter sky. Today that sky is devoid of color; thick clouds conceal a sickly sun. Where is the sun? Where is spring?

I know this feeling of chill today has more to do with my mood than with the season. It's forty-two degrees Fahrenheit today, not balmy by any means but certainly not bitter. Only a few weeks ago we were rejoicing when temperatures rose into the forties. Today that same degree marker seems cold, uninviting, unfriendly.

Spring is on the way. My perception of today as a cold winter's day is an illusion. My perspective from the second story window is flawed. Downstairs, outside, out in the garden and in the yard, signs of life, signs of spring are everywhere. The forsythia is covered with buds, about to explode into bloom. The lilac is likewise bursting with buds. Two timid purple crocus in a sunny spot have already lifted their brave faces to the southern sun. Daffodils and hyacinth have pushed green leaves up through the mulch. Even the mystery potted plant which lives in my upstairs south window has put out a little red, five petaled flower, the first after winter. Life is rich and wriggling down in the garden. It's only up here, facing north, facing the darkness, where things seem so dead and cold.

I'm convinced my mood contributes to the perception. This week, the news seems to have brought to me a plethora of horror stories. Rescued swans shot in Somerset; poisoned meatballs left along a nature trail where people come to walk their dogs; an owl kicked to death by a soccer player in Colombia; kittens clubbed and stomped to death by a twenty-one year old girl in Malaysia while the mother cat tries to save them.

I find myself struggling with the idea of cruelty. Why, why, why? I struggle to understand, because, if we can understand a thing, we can control it, we can change it, right? Right?

I begin my research. I search to see what the experts have to say about cruelty, and violence, about abuse, and their causes. The search dredges up more horror stories, more tales of violence. I will not regale you, Gentle Reader. You know the outlines of the stories I found, if not the details. You have encountered them yourself, year after bitter year in this crazy old world. My shoulders slump, my energy drains away. Whatever is one person of moderately good heart to do in the face of such evil? I start yearning for chocolate. I begin to consider going to bed and putting the covers over my head. My fingers itch to become lost in a video game. Numbing. I want to numb.

In due course the Spousal Unit arrives home. I tell him I'm trying to understand cruelty and violence, and plan to write a post around those topics. What does he think causes cruelty, I ask?

We cook dinner together, we discuss. We talk about fear, about feeling vulnerable, out of control. About the need for power when one feels powerless. About the need for respect. We discuss how being abused sometimes disposes a person toward continuing the abuse, by becoming a perpetrator of violence and cruelty, the so-called "cycle of abuse".

His shoulders, too, begin to slump as we continue the discussion. I can see the meditation taking its toll on his energy levels. It's overwhelming. The sadness and sorrow and helplessness in the face of what we people can do to one another and to our fellow creatures is overwhelming. We end up going to bed early, exhausted.

I dream. Strangely, the conversation and research has shaken loose memories of Junior High, what they now call "Middle School."  The time of early adolescence, twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old. It wasn't an easy time. I wasn't one of the "cool" kids. I was smart, and not good at sports. There was a certain amount of bullying, though the Catholic nuns where I went to school kept most of it under control. Those middle school abusers / bullies contented themselves with tormenting me and others of my friends, never moving on, so far as I know, to torturing animals or children or to abusing their spouses.

I struggle to make sense of the causes of violence and abuse and cruelty. So many voices offer up opinions, some of them conflicting.

"Some abusers describe their actions as 'fun' and 'thrilling'."

"From a psychological perspective, animal abuse provides sought after emotion and reward."

"Abusers may gain things from their acts that are essential to and supported by the larger society."

"Students recalled animal abuse as a means to try on and exercise adultlike powers from which they felt excluded."  Arnold Arluke

"When individuals become isolated, marginalized, and without some connection to those around them, violence increases."

"When we become desensitized to death or killing, violence increases."   (Arnold Arluke  and  Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD)

I read over these quotes and others, and I face a terrible truth:  I don't understand the cruelty. I don't understand the violence.

Maybe it's not understandable.

If it's not understandable, how can it be controlled? How can it be stopped?

I find it very strange that ponderings on the causes and nature of cruelty stir up my subconscious to dreams and memories of junior high school, of early adolescence. It's such a volatile time, such a desperately important time in the development of a human being. Certainly there was much angst and misery for me during those years. But there was also tremendous inspiration, thoughts and concepts and experiences that set my feet on the path of who I am, and who I have hoped to be.

It was during those years that a drama teacher with long black hair packed us all into her battered station wagon and drove us fifty miles to see a live performance of the Broadway musical, "Man of La Mancha." It was one of the formative experiences of my life. If you don't know the story, it runs thusly:

Miguel de Cervantes is a writer of plays; he is detained by the Spanish Inquisition and tossed into prison. There, to keep from being robbed and beaten by the other prisoners, and to save his precious manuscript from being casually consigned by them to the flames, he enacts a play, using the prisoners themselves as actors. The main character in that play-within-a-play is one "Don Quixote de la Mancha." He is an elderly gentlemen who, having read old tales of chivalry, and having looked upon the modern world and seen how far reality is from that chivalric ideal, becomes a madman. He thinks himself a knight.

Miguel Cervantes says at one point:
" I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger ... cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle ... or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words ... only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question, "Why?"
 I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!"
So Cervantes' crazy knight, Don Quixote, sets out to live a life of integrity, a life of authenticity, insisting on an interpretation of reality that is not perceived at all by the good modern folk around him. They see him as a madman, for he insists on interpreting reality through a different lens than theirs.

Quixote is one of my heroes. A fictional character, but my hero none the less.  During the course of the musical, he gives us a glimpse of the creed which drives and sustains him:
"The mission of each true knight, his duty — nay — his privilege...
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow...This is my matter how hopeless...

And the world will be better for this."
There is cruelty in the world. There is violence and there is abuse. There is terrible suffering, by human kind and by animal kind alike. It may be that it will always be with us, this sorrow, this suffering. I believe that people who wound others are themselves in terrible pain. I believe that compassion is the only sane response. I do not say "cure", because I don't know if there is a cure. "To bear with unbearable sorrow," may be the best we can do, at times. 

Then let us, Gentle Reader, cultivate compassion as best we may, in our own hearts, so that we are able to reach out with compassion to the wounded in our world. Let us reach out with compassion and respect to the irritating, to the arrogant, to the ignorant, and to the cruel, and always, to the wounded, to the sorrowful, to the outcast, to the despised. Let us not judge whether the ones to whom we reach are deserving of our compassion, deserving of our respect; let us offer it anyway, whether they are deserving or not in our eyes. This is our quest.

And the world will, truly, be better for this.

stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of short stories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjects: felines , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com. Thanks for reading!


  1. Very thought provoking. I just wish punishment would be greater for those who abuse animals.

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  3. This is why I'm vegan. As you know, animal cruelty is not just reserved for the CUTE or MAJESTIC animals, but the WORST of it is heaped upon those that end up dead on our plates. Compassion for the abusers? Tall order indeed, but I'm trying to see it's worth. Visualize peace for ALL animals, not just our pets. Visualize peace for those that feel the need to eat/hurt animals. Maybe that's just what they need to act with kindness. I'm working on it...working...working...