In an aversion to animals, 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 10 rural acres east of Seattle), when I startled a coyote that 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. I was left to confront a tiny, 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 those 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 little neck. (Physically easy; emotionally, not so much.)
For me—and, I’m sure for many others—Darwin was altogether correct when he noted the “grandeur in this view of life,” that we are all connected, sharing ancestry and thus, partaking equally 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 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 those other, lowly, less angelic creatures.
The notion that “we” are qualitatively different from “them” turns out to be convenient, on many levels. Thus, it enables many of my fellow Homo sapiens to turn away from the fraught question of animal suffering, as manifested in “factory farming,” habitat destruction, or cruel and unnecessary experimentation on animals. It also, of course, facilitates a degree of theologically enabled, species-centric preening, to go with the tactical indifference. Fortunately, however, there are alternative voices, and not only those of evolutionary biologists (nearly all of whom, by the way, retain and even celebrate Darwin’s sense of wonder). Perhaps in the emerging ethics of the environment, we can catch glimmers of that long-sought common ground between science and religion.
Even Christianity—not always inclined toward a benevolent view of the natural world (pace St. Francis)—has spawned recent interest in stewardship for “the creation.” Such organizations as Christians for Environmental Stewardship have been laboring with some success, for example, to reach the world’s evangelical and conservative churches. I would like to think that a comparable spark of “enlightened organicity” stirs somewhere in Islam, although thus far, I haven’t seen it.
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 has emerged especially since the Vietnam War, with a message of social and environmental responsibility. Engaged Buddhism goes far beyond the stereotype of detached meditators concerned only with their inner peace, burnishing their personal karma while indifferent to the hemorrhaging rabbits all around.
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,” so confusing to many Westerners, 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 exist 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 clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud there will be no water; without water, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, you cannot make paper.”
The beloved Vietnamese monk goes on to include the logger who cut the trees, the logger’s father, 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 chainsaw. 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 dying rabbit.
I would like to think that in finishing the coyote’s work, 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, in its own way, quite wonderful.