We talk about being one race but if we meant it, it would mean we would have to suffer along with everyone.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
On my Facebook feed, a video of a public servant resuscitating a dog; the next video, a public servant shooting a 50-year-old man. The suspect tries to flee and with no attempt to give chase, the officer opens fire. There was an opportunity to revive the suspect, but the officer opts not to, and instead handcuffs the man who has been face-down for several minutes. The dog lives, the person dies. It was by sheer coincidence that these videos were shown next to each other, but now that I've seen them in this sequence, how do I feel about this?
Know Your Values and Why You Have Them
Why do I think the way I do? Why am I reacting this way? When questions arise, is when I decide to self-reflect. Without this self-reflection process, I am left incoherent and confused — opinionated and argumentative. This can be a common default mode of being. I don't know how this makes others feel, but I enjoy clarity. These are my reflections and I am hoping they trigger helpful meditations in the reader. Yet I must warn, before the benefits, come harsh self-truths. But harsh truths is the name of the game, in changing them is where the benefits lie.
Reading the comments of the animal rescue video, there was unanimous agreement regarding the actions of the officer. The consensus was, saving a life is good. In regards to the slain person, there was heated disagreement. There were questions in regards to the character of the deceased man; there was no debate over the character of the dog, it didn't need to be a "good boy" for us to want to save it.
Our Love-Hate Relationship With Ourselves
We have this ability to humanize animals and dehumanize humans. It is the juxtaposition of a soldier being able to rescue a cat while fighting in a war; the enemy is no longer human but the cat is one of our own. We can love an animal as much as a person, but we can hate a person more than we could ever hate an animal. The actions of animals do not cause introspection, we don't begin to question humanity and its inherent goodness. It's our human connection that can cause us distress; it is what we often seek to divorce.
We see animals as basic and needy, in need of our love and protection. We don't need sophisticated understanding to care for an animal, it doesn't require nuance; we make them a "thing." We don't need to know the history of their species or their culture. I wholeheartedly agree they deserve our respect, but respect requires reflection and I don't know if we reflect upon animals more than we do our iPads — though we should.
We project ourselves onto "things." People may reject our projections, reject our control, our protection, our expectations, our love — things cannot. If an animal were to reject us, we would believe it didn't know any better. If a person rejects us, we see them as being mean. With people, there are expectations and caveats — strings are attached. The same hard and fast rules don't apply to animals, they don't have to be grateful. When a person doesn't say thank you for the smallest gesture, we get upset.
If an animal hurts another animal, we consider it part of their nature. When it hurts a human, we consider the act of that animal an individual act. Times when a person hurts another person, or even when a person hurts an animal, we find it hard to consider it an individual act. We may question the type of world we live in; because the act of one person somehow reflects on us all. I cannot deny this connection. Why is this?
A friend conjectured that it was because most animals have large eyes in relative comparison to the size of their heads. This is similar to the effect babies have on us. If eyes are windows to the soul, the larger the window, the more we can project the type of soul we'd like for them to have. The easier it is for us to set the narrative, the easier it is for us to care. Now, if you have your own narrative you want to express about yourself and it doesn't line up with the one we have for you, there may be problems. We get angry at celebrities when they don't turn out the way we expect them to be.
The Right Amount of Outrage
At the Copenhagen Zoo, Marius the giraffe had a genetic defect and was ultimately terminated. There was worldwide public outrage and even death threats to the staff of the zoo. At the same time, the death toll of the civil war in Syria was over 146,000. The worldwide outrage did not correspond to the death toll; the media coverage paled in comparison to Marius. Later on, the media moved from Marius to Cecil the lion. Only when the Syrian crisis was too big to ignore did the world pay attention, yet there was no unanimous agreement on how we should feel.
One may say, well what does one have to do with the other? Empathy. And what is easier to empathize, different skin or different species? Being a humanist is hard because we're confronted with our own vulnerabilities and mortality — our humanity. Something we are continuously trying to transcend, through religion, the occult, and now technology. Our own death scares us and seeing things that look like us dying makes the strongest of us tremble. We don't share these stories because most of us would consider it poor taste. Talk of human death is bad manners because it causes us discomfort.
Sometimes, it is the trivial that outrages us, just because of that — it is trivial. It is within our ability to grasp. Genocide and war can be beyond our emotional comprehension. Things go viral when it is the right amount of outrage, when it is too much, we look away. There needs to be a certain level of apathy for it to be ubiquitous. Then we should not be surprised when this outrage produces very little change.
What We Pay Attention To
There is a joke among journalists, that investigative reporting will never be profitable because people would rather hear about puppies and babies. (Some say the Syrian crisis hit a tipping point when the media made the narrative about a single slain child.) And that has been the criticism, that legacy journalism doesn't give the people what they want. If they want "fluff," then the people have spoken. Yet this discounts the value of education, which is often the thing we don't want but rather an important thing that we need. Journalism isn't meant to solely be a form of entertainment; it can improve our quality of life by exposing wrongdoings of people in positions of authority. It can serve as a line of defense for the people, to educate, and to let those in charge know that we are watching and we will hold them accountable.
Would we be a better society if we only get what we want? Or is there also a need for ideas that challenge us to grow as a society? Empathy needs a certain level of emotional sophistication. When a person is killed, there is outrage but not by everyone. Not everyone who felt outrage for Marius or Cecil may feel the same for people. We may not empathize because they are of another group, another race, or another gender. We make them into this "other," less than human. They become "them," rather than people, they become "those people." Their deaths don't count, it's happening too often; an abstract statistic rather than a tragedy. Not murder but slaughter — like animals.
Why did the photo of one dead child touch us more than previous photos of countless dead, which also included children? We can imagine losing one child, but when there are multiple, our system overloads. There is too much input for there to be outrage — too much pain because this group is constantly suffering. We know being a humanitarian one time wouldn't be enough, and perhaps nothing we could do would be enough. It's beyond our individual control.
We talk about being one race but if we meant it, it would mean we would have to suffer along with everyone. We can be angry about Marius because it doesn't make us feel bad or guilty — "Those people are the bad guys, not us." We can be mad because we don't have anything vested in it, we are not exposing ourselves or putting ourselves out there. Being angry about the death of a person can cause us to feel grief, guilt, and responsibility — and this causes a storm of arguments because we can be the bad guys. Because we do need to put ourselves out there and we do have a vested interest. We can't sit on the sidelines and hide, we're forced to expose ourselves and our feelings to others, and their feelings onto ourselves.
Empathy Is Evolved Sympathy
Sympathy is much simpler than empathy. Sympathy requires no connection, it is feeling pity for someone while separating yourself from them. "At least, I'm not like them." Sympathy requires no sensitivity and understanding. You see their pain and shield yourself from it. They feel bad but you don't feel that way, you feel sorry they feel that way. Rather than trying to understand how another person may feel, allowing their feelings onto yourself, you project your feelings onto them. You don't empathize because you believe if you were them, you would have somehow acted differently. This is common in sexual assault, "I get that you feel bad, and I'm sorry. But you should have defended yourself. I would have." You feel a little bit of what they feel, you feel "for" them, but you don't drop your guard enough to feel "into" what they feel. You want to believe you are stronger than they are, denying their pain helps you cope with your own weaknesses — the possibility that you could similarly suffer in their situation. So you disavow that possibly. It could never happen to you, you tell yourself, not in a million years. You are not helping them, it's self-serving self-preservation. The focus isn't on easing their pain, it is about making yourself feel better. They become a cautionary tale. This invariably makes the other person feel worse — the group suffers, then we all suffer.
You sympathize "for" or you empathize "with." Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. You feel into them; rather than severing connections, you create more connections. You drop your guard and allow yourself to be vulnerable; this takes a lot of courage. Creating a deeper level of understanding, background, history, and thought process — creating a bond. Community is the best way to ease someone else's suffering.
As people, we have opinions, in a democracy, we can disagree. Animals don't give contrary opinions. They don't disagree with our politics. They can never correct our grammar. They don't judge us or call us fat and ugly. Their lack of opinions makes us feel better about ourselves. They don't challenge us — challenge our ego, pride, and intelligence.
We sympathize for animals, we don't empathize with them. We can interpret their situation the way we want to and they cannot argue. We don't need to drop our guard because we as humans wouldn't have gotten caught in the middle of that highway, we would be able to ask someone for help if we had gotten lost. We don't connect to that pain, we don't need to. We don't need to be vulnerable or reduce ourselves. We can stay the benevolent master. We can never spend a day in their shoes. What we would do in their situation wouldn't even cross our minds, whereas it would with a person. And the possibilities of us suffering the same fate is too abhorrent to consider, so we avoid it. We avoid empathy and introspection. When we help an animal, we feel good because we know we've done enough. We're a good person. When we consider helping a person, we wonder if we should be doing more. There's just more to it. There are easier ways to feel like a good person. But is that what it's about? How we feel? What about how they feel?
The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World
Animal suffering becomes human suffering and human suffering becomes animal suffering. We can bring them close because they are far away. If we bring someone already close any closer, we bring them into ourselves. It's sometimes easier to help those in other countries than helping those in our own country — Africans over African-Americans. We create an emotional barrier, helping without getting caught up.
Is self-interest the only reason to do good things? To improve our self-image? To promote more self-love? I treat this "thing" well because it is my thing. Sociopaths can treat their pets or spouses with care because they see them as their property, an extension of themselves and their reputation. With helping others, if it doesn't somehow help ourselves, is the default thought, "Why bother?" Is there such a thing as loving ourselves too much and loving others too little?
Maslow's hierarchy of needs states that when all basic needs are met, we get creative with needs. Depending on where we are, perhaps we will be outraged by the practical. If all needs are met, perhaps we will be outraged by the novel. Yet with so much outrage, disproportionate in importance, will we fatigue of both just the same?
Ironic Social Conscience
Many people feel conflict over eating animal products, or purchasing products that have harmed an animal. Yet Avocados, now a popular superfood, comes with a high human price. Dubbed "blood avocados," many Mexicans are killed to supply Americans with their avocado fix. There was nearly no outrage when this was reported. In fact, little has changed. The same is true for quinoa. There are over three times as many animal shelters as there are women and children's shelters. There are human costs to bring us Jansport, Nautica, North Face, and many other brands and labels. We create child slavery to produce palm oil in Malaysia and chocolate from Africa. And let's not forget our love for diamonds. We fight for our rights to use marijuana but the price of our leisure has also meant the suffering of others. Worst of all, however, is our most ubiquitous relationship; our sordid and tragic history with sugar — which has involved slavery to genocide. And we ignore this.
And I Think I Know Why...
It's too hard, too tragic to see a person as a person and watch them suffer. We can feel the suffering of an animal because we don't see them as our grandmother, our father, as ourselves. It's easier to say goodbye to an animal when the time comes. It's much harder when dealing with a person we love because the pain we feel is much deeper. We're sometimes unable to handle that loss. No matter how much we love a pet or consider them a family member, it is rare to hear of anyone dragging them on beyond their expiration — it would be hard for us to to understand. Why a person may keep a family member alive even after the soul has departed, would be self-evident. We get it and no explanation is needed.
Human death is like watching a mirror image expire. It reflects on us and brings into question if we could have somehow prevented it. It leaves us vulnerable and frail and many of us can't handle that. This is why empathy is the greatest example of strength. To put ourselves into the emotional line of fire and to constantly repeat the process. An animal is metaphoric death of the self; a person is literal death. We no longer feel emotionally equipped for severe realities. I know this first-hand. I wrote a tribute about the death of my dog not long after she died. It took me much longer to write about the deaths of close family members. This doesn't mean I love my dog more than my family, her death was just easier to talk about.
When I volunteer, helping animals is a lot easier for me than it is to work with senior citizens. The physical requirements working with seniors is more relaxed, it is the emotional elements that are challenging. The path to working with animals is often paved with similar stories. People often give up meat after the death of a loved one. I have heard more than one celebrity say, the reason they work with animals is because they survived rape. You may think, then wouldn't it make more sense to work with battered women or at-risk children, or other survivors? They have traumatic energy they want to use for good, but working with animals fulfills their need without triggering their trauma.
We don't avoid human suffering because we hate people or think less of them, it is the opposite, we care too much for them. We don't want to highlight it, we are less likely to share it. If we hated people, all we would want to hear about is their suffering. We don't know what to do when we care deeply, so we shut down. Like fear, when we are afraid, we run; when we are beyond afraid, we freeze. Animals provide us a way to deal with death without making it personal.
Empathy Keeps Us All Alive and Happy
Yet empathy for other human beings was a key to our survival. We are the most cooperative of species, our brains are designed to make others a part of ourselves. This was essential; protecting others was protecting our resources. Creating more connections and allies meant expanded resources. Not only are we equipped to handle empathy, we’re hardwired for it. Empathy is a muscle that needs to be flexed if it is to grow. The same is true of courage and resilience.
Groups that say "our" instead of "my," tend to live relatively longer and happier lives. Though connection can spread suffering, it also diffuses it. As we empathize with others, they in return will empathize with us. We become examples for others to learn from and they become examples for ourselves. Though we may not directly serve ourselves, when we protect the whole, the whole can then better protect the individual. Connection and community are the linchpins for happiness. Isolation and loneliness are the linchpins for misery. In the longest living groups, diets and lifestyle can vary; the common factor is community. This is why a pill can never replicate the results. The people who live the longest, live close to loved ones, get frequent visits, interact regularly, and laugh, suffer, and feel together. We're happy when there is someone to be happy with, we live longer when there is a someone to live for.
We all have varying degrees of empathy, the lack of empathy is sociopathy. Without empathy, in a society of only sociopaths, how would we have survived? This doesn't only mean murder, that is the most obscene but least common method. The more subtle widespread demise would come from doing nothing. As an individual we are like one stick; the unit as a whole is like a bundle of sticks — that much more durable.
Empathy is essential for a functional society. Survivability of every species (including human) depends on protection and growth of the herd. That is empathy and every animal has some level of it for its own species. Thinking only of yourself can kill the herd. (Think of someone who has a dangerous disease who doesn't use protection when having sexual intercourse.)
When we don't know how we feel, our feelings can be overwhelming. We need to reflect upon ourselves and grow in fortitude. When I hear the story of a woman who has lost everything to war, has fled to the US, and is working two jobs to send money back home — not only for her family, but for her village — I am reminded that we are not physically the strongest species, but we are mentally the most resilient. When I hear of volunteers helping to get clean water to this village because of her efforts, I am reminded why humans are so special. That's an ideal to strive for.
Empathy takes work. It requires understanding, patience, resilience, and most of all courage. It is not easy to put our emotions in the line of fire to understand someone else's suffering. When the suffering is too great, we can choose to ignore it. I don't believe this means we care less, perhaps it reminds us of our own mortality and that can be too much for us to bear. The loss of a human life can sometimes be beyond comprehension. But in exposing ourselves, we can also diffuse suffering, even our own. The combined community can bear the brunt of it.
Useful Companions to This Article:
- Immortality: The Quest To Live Forever And How It Drives Civilization - Stephen Cave
- The Mindful Carnivore - Tovar Cerulli
- The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons For Living Longer From The People Who've Lived the Longest - Dan Buettner
- Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way We Live, Love, Parent, And Lead - Brené Brown, PhD
- "Sugar Love (A Not So Sweet Story)" - National Geographic
- In a study, researchers at the University of Virginia have found that humans are hardwired to empathize
- "South Carolina Officer Is Charged With Murder Of Walter Scott" - The New York Times
- "Anger Erupts After Danish Zoo Kills A ‘Surplus’ Giraffe" - The New York Times
- "Does the Internet Really Care About Cecil the Lion?" - Pacific Standard
- "Do We Care More About Animals’ Suffering Over Humans?" - New York Post
- "Report: More Than 146,000 People Killed in Syrian Civil War" - Time
- "The Violent Gang Wars Behind Your Super Bowl Guacamole" - The Wall Street Journal
- A study on social isolation and premature death
- "Diamonds Move From Blood to Sweat and Tears" - The New York Times
- Marriage linked to better survival in middle age; study highlights importance of social ties during midlife
- A study finds married couples live longer, healthier lives
- "Does One Abused Woman = 100 Abused Puppies?" - The Economist: Intelligent Life
- "Can Vegans Stomach The Unpalatable Truth About Quinoa?" - The Guardian
- A paper by the Union of Concerned Scientists on palm oil
- "Slaves To Our Taste For Chocolate" - The Guardian
- "Which Came First, The Chicken Or The Avocado?" - Freakonomics Radio
- "Former Baywatch actress gives harrowing account of sexual assault from her youth as she uses festival to launch animal welfare foundation" - The Guardian
- "Grim Task Of Identifying Factories’ Dead Overwhelms Bangladeshi Lab" - The New York Times
- "Legislators Ask Why Mexicans Should Die Over A Drug The U.S. Is Legalizing" - Huffington Post