Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Sanity of Compassion...

Back when my son was two, I was bored to tears with reading him Lyle Crocodile all the time. One evening, I grabbed The Lorax from the bookshelf on a whim for our night-time reading ritual; I didn’t know how much he would be able to take away from it but I was determined to avoid reading about the house on East 88th Street for just one night. My son was speaking a little at this age, not a lot yet, so I didn’t know how much he would understand from a more complex book like The Lorax, but I desperately needed a change in the rotation.

We snuggled together and I was happily reading along until I got to the end, when the last Truffula tree was struck down. I suddenly heard a gasp. It came from my son. I turned to look at him and tears were streaming down his cheeks: “No more tees!” he cried, pointed at the page, his eyes wide. “No more tees!” I was in disbelief: I was so lost in the story myself I had no idea that not only was he following along, he was deeply engrossed. My son screamed and wailed. I quickly skipped ahead in the book to the page where the little boy was given the last Truffula seed by the Once-ler.

“See? It’s okay,” I said, trying to soothe him, still taken aback myself. “The boy can plant the seed. He can save the trees. He’ll plant more.” My son wasn’t having it. I explained that it was just a book, it wasn’t real, but he still sobbed himself to sleep that night, sniffling and his breath catching until he finally drifted off. When my husband came home that night, I was still shaken. I told him what had happened. “Well,” he said, “on the bright side, it is probably not going to be any trouble getting him to embrace being vegan.”

In the moment of learning that the last beautiful Truffula tree had been chopped down, my two-year-old felt the injustice of that action so personally that he cried out in pain and anguish, as if he himself had been struck with an axe. There was no separation between my son and the trees; as children do, he loved trees – they are mysterious, majestic, providing sanctuary for many creatures – and his reaction made sense. We should cry out when we see such senseless acts of destruction. Eight years later, my son is still viscerally empathetic to others who are vulnerable. This response is natural, normal and sane. I was reminded of this last weekend.

We had gone away with our network of Chicago area vegan families for our annual weekend out of town together. This year, we went to the Mad City Vegan Festival in Wisconsin, about 2 ½ hours from Chicago, in lovely Madison. My son and his friend, also a vegan, had wandered into one of the rooms while they were screening Vegucated. I have not seen it yet but there were some graphic scenes of cruelty to animals. Apparently it is a small part of the film but it made a big impression on the kids. My son and his friend were so upset they left the room, not able to keep watching the movie.

Before they left, they saw animals shoved into cages without any consideration. They saw slaughterhouses and tortured cows, chickens and pigs. It made their eyes well up and, afterward, it made them angry.

Not knowing they had seen the movie, I noticed them sitting at a nearby table, looking uncharacteristically subdued and sad. I sat down next to them and they told me about what they had seen, how upsetting it was to them.

“The animals are killed just for sandwiches and chicken nuggets,” my son said. He has these soulful, dewy eyes that can rip my heart out, especially at moments like this.

“They just cram them into cages. They kill the pigs and then they shred them into bacon,” said my son’s friend, shaking his head. “Baconism has to end!"

“It’s not worth it, is it?” I said.


My son has been raised as a vegan. He has never known another way. He does, however, know that the vast majority of people do not live like us. We’ve always been mindful about not attaching anything “extra” to this fact, allowing him to analyze and understand the eating of animals through his own processes but being there for him for discussion. There are people he loves – his grandmother, a good number of his friends, all of his relatives – who do not look at our place in the world the same way we do and he accepts that he’s different, we’re different. My son has never minded this all that much and he has always embraced and been proud of his identity as a vegan. I think, though, because it is something that he has always been, he hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about how it might feel to those who are born to be consumed, the actual lives they have. He understands, of course, that animals are killed for food but until he saw those scenes in the movie, I think it was mostly conceptual. Seeing the animals abused with his own eyes, though, made the cruelty very real to my son and his friend. Their suffering was inescapably concrete, no longer just an abstraction.

I recognized something in their faces that afternoon as the three of us talked about their thoughts. I recognized that feeling of knowing that they had seen something that will alter their perspective forever. There is a loss of innocence with that, this knowing that you cannot go back and “unsee” but there is great freedom with it, too. There is a liberation we gain from being allowed the unfiltered truth. In them, I also recognized the same feeling of being stupefied by the business-as-usual approach to the life-and-death matters of animal agriculture as well as the purifying fire that seeing a clear, inexcusable injustice sparks within us. After ten years of being vegan, I saw my son deeply internalize his values on his own terms. He had always happily embraced veganism but seeing what he saw crystallized it for him in a new way.

The next day, our group went to an animal sanctuary near Madison. The kids held roosters, petted pigs, fed goats and helped to clean and prepare the space for a summer camp. They were able to enjoy themselves in a setting far removed from their usual urban lives. The kids were excited to see the animals but felt sadness knowing how few actually manage to find true sanctuary. This is a sane, emotionally intelligent response to exploitation: if you don’t feel sad for the other beings that are suffering immensely, you have turned something off. These kids are not conditioned; they are not indoctrinated. It’s the opposite. Their heads, and their hearts, are wide open.

We live in a deeply and unnecessarily violent world. Outrage and rebellion against systemic injustice is a terrific and reassuring response. Thank goodness for the people who cry out when others get cut down: they are our hope for the future.