Like most people I know, I have just a very narrow sphere of knowledge that I’m willing to let penetrate my consciousness at any given time.
There’s so much I know but don’t want to know. So much I choose not to acknowledge.
It’s a form of self-preservation, because if I were to allow myself to really feel the unnecessary pain and suffering that floods our world like an endless terrorized scream into the night wind, all the time…I could not bear it. I would go insane.
What prompts these reflections today is the news that hundreds of thousands of seal pups are drowning in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this season, after a straight run of disastrously warm winters where the pack ice on which harp seal moms give birth has been too thin to provide the shelter the pups need to survive.
Add to this the fact that the Canadian government, knowing full well that the harp seal populations are in dramatic decline due to global heating, is still going ahead with the annual seal pup hunt, allowing as many as 330,000 pups to be clubbed to death by hunters this season.
This despite the fact that Russia and the European Union, the principal clientele for seal fur, have banned imports this year. Despite the fact, too, that a huge backlog of seal pelts is sitting in warehouses.
It’s one thing to kill animals for food. Human beings are carnivores, after all. But killing for sport…killing for unnecessary furs…killing for no good reason makes me feel deeply ashamed of my species, and heartsick for the loss of life.
I don’t know what to do with these feelings. Signing yet another online petition or sending yet another contribution to a Save the Seals campaign does not seem anywhere near adequate.
I am not capable of practicing tonglen, taking in the suffering and sending out lovingkindness to both the victims and the perpetrators, as Buddhists like Pema Chodrun recommend. I can neither bear to take in the suffering, nor stomach sending anything akin to kindness to the perpetrators.
So I do what most people do. I close my eyes. I grow some kind of hard shell around my heart. I choose, without even consciously realizing what I’m doing, to ignore news and information that will upset me.
I remember clearly that as a child, I was not yet capable of this degree of callousness. I very rarely was exposed to any suffering, since I grew up in a very sheltered environment, but every so often something would manage to get through into my sweetly padded cocoon, and leave me gasping in empathetic pain.
Once I was standing outside on the lawn in front of the house, and a bird whizzed by me and flew straight into a window. It fell to the ground, stunned. I ran to it and picked it up, cradling its trembling body in my arms. Its neck was probably broken…it died within an hour. I held it and cried over it and mourned it so deeply that even now, so many years later, I still tear up thinking about the sorrow that small death called up in me.
I can’t live with that kind of sorrow all the time; I would be paralyzed with grief. And so I compartmentalize. I go about my business and actively avoid thinking about the thousands of seal pups dying today. Or the wolf pups being poisoned by the Canadian government to clear out the boreal forest in preparation to extract oil. Or the millions of songbirds and waterfowl killed each year by US federal government agencies because they get in the way of industrial agriculture or airplanes or golf courses.
Just for a moment, let’s dare to imagine what the world could be like if adults like me did not deliberately silence and smother our empathy for the creatures who need our help to survive.
Love might just be the most radical gift we could bring to the world.
What could be more potent than action fueled by love? Do we dare? Can we afford not to?