Saturday, September 20, 2008

On Compassion

I recently went to a memorial service for the father of my friend Belle. Belle’s sister, Brady, spoke at the service. She talked at length about how much her father loved animals and she even went so far as to say that he believed a love of animals was a sign of a person’s capacity for compassion. She joked that some people thought her father loved his animals more than his kids. She said it lightheartedly, with a toss of the head; but there was a sad truth to it.

He was an angry man, unkind at times. He was most committed to taking it out on Belle’s brother, the oldest child, Robert. Poor Robert bore the brunt of his dad’s frustration derived from a life lived without any breaks. Despite his cantankerousness, Mr. L felt a kinship with dogs, cats, all animals. He talked to them about his life, he told them his story at the end of his days. He confided in his pets and sought forgiveness, Brady told the gathered crowd.

I hate animals. I don’t hate them. That’s an exaggeration. But I don’t really like them. I don’t want to hurt them. But I don’t really want to be around them either. Unfortunately, I have a cat. His name is The Brain. My husband and I re named him that (his original name was Lenny) when we realized he wasn’t very bright. Aren’t we ironic? We often joke that our cat is an asshole. He’s everywhere you don’t want him to be. When I want to work, he sits on my keyboard and bites my hands. When I want to sleep in on the weekend, he sits on my chest and screams in my face until I feed him. When I want to read, he positions himself between my eyes and the page, biting my wrists with significant vigor. He pees on the bath mat instead of in his litter box, he vomits to get my attention so I’ll feed him. See what I mean? Asshole!

All of that being said, I would never hurt him. I spend about $3 a day on cat food so that he gets the fancy canned food he likes. He sits on my belly while I watch Project Runway and we fall asleep together mid-way through. He’s lived with me for 14 years, a gift from my husband after a fight early in our relationship. Some gift. A cantankerous cat that squawks in my face all the time, wakes me up at 4 a.m. and leaves excrement in the bathroom because for some reason, the litter just isn’t fine enough for him.

So I don’t hate animals. I just don’t LOVE them. I’m familiar with all the studies that say that animals make people happier, prevent depression, keep old people from withering away and falling into abiding sadness, giving up on life. But this whole angle that Mr. L maintained that a person’s treatment of animals is indicative of their true character, their innate humaneness, is a crock, if you ask me. These people that were heartbroken during Hurricane Katrina because dogs were stranded, but were completely immune to the human suffering are a conundrum to me. Why would the dog stuck on the roof cause a person to pick up the phone and give money but a woman stuck inside her home, would not? I know I’m offending the animal lovers out there. But before you skewer me…consider this:

I believe empathy towards your own family comes first. Then friends. Then humans. Then animals. If a father is persistently unkind to his children, he’s a not a good father and I’d go so far as to say, he just might not be a good man. All people have good and bad in them; no one is all bad. An unkind moment doesn’t make someone evil. But a life spent yelling at one’s children, disparaging them at every turn, dispensing violence in frustration, is a life spent inhumanely, without compassion. No matter how kind you are to animals.

I’m not implying that we should be dismissive or unkind or abusive to animals. Not even close. But lets measure compassion by how we extend it to our own children, our spouses, our loves ones, our species, first and foremost. We can give the love leftovers to our pets.


Anonymous said...

animal is perfect gift for upset woman. My Dad did it to my Mom. She was always touched by it. Although he ended up liking the cat more. :)

Anonymous said...

I can see your point about being kind to people ahead of animals. On the other hand, animals, unlike people, are non judgmental and, relatively speaking, don't ask much of their human companions.

My husband loves animals. He also loves his teenaged kids, even though they often act like assholes. Two of them no longer speak to him. They call him by his first name and refuse to have anything to do with him, yet still expect him to pay their bills. A couple of years ago, they even demanded that he let their current stepfather adopt them.

Our two dogs, by comparison, welcome him home at night and give him nothing but love and affection. All they want from him is kindness, food, an occasional walk... and the right to sleep on our bed, of course.

I think compassion is a two way street. And lately, the more time I spend around people, the more I really appreciate my dogs. But I will agree that we humans would do well to show more compassion toward one another.