Living with Living Creatures: Will We Become the Apocalypse?

22 May

O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul.

S. T. Coleridge, “The Eolian Harp”

Chet Wickwire was one of the most remarkable men I’ve known. He was Chaplain of The Johns Hopkins University in the third quarter of the last century. It’s in that capacity that I came to know him. He was central to both the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the 1960s and 1970s; he established a tutorial program that worked with inner city children, and he organized a wide variety of programs that benefited Johns Hopkins students and the local community. I worked for him as a program assistant for two or three years in the early 1970s.

One day during a meeting in his office – it may have been the weekly staff meeting – someone pointed out a possibly injured bee on the floor. My impulse – this is what I thought – was simply to kill it and throw the body into the trash. Chet’s was different. He gently picked the bee up and set it on the window sill. It then flew away.

That simple act of kindness, to a mere insect, impressed me deeply. Every time I think to kill an insect, I think of Chet and the bee. Sometimes I refrain and do what little I can to help the insect along, though often enough I kill the insect. But not without a twinge of guilt and angst, which is distinct from any disgust over contact with squishy insect guts.

But why was Chet unwilling to kill the bee? It is, after all, only an animal, and a rather lowly one at that? The only reasonable answer to that question is that he respected the bee as a living being. And if you ask: Why that? Well, is that not a reasonable why for an adult human being to act?

Just how are we to conduct our relations with other living beings? What degree of respect do we accord to their life? The answers to those questions, of course, vary from one culture to another. One concern here – it’s lurking in the background – is that the answer of the industrialized West, the agribusiness factory farming West is: None. None at all. No respect for other life forms. Is that answer anything less than a suicide pact?

Let me retell a story about my cousin Sue. She was born in the city and raised in the suburbs. But in her mid-30s or so she moved to the country and married a veterinarian. She began to raise sheep, not as pets, but as a source of wool to be spun into thread which she would then weave into cloth. When the sheep reached a certain age, she would take them to the butcher and, a day later, she and her husband would stock their freezer with mutton.

Despite the fact that these sheep are not pets, taking them to be butchered was not easy. Nor was their first meal comprised of mutton from sheep they’d raised. I’m told that when Sue and her husband sat down to that meal they were rather glum and sat there in silence, eating nothing. Then Sue said “baaa” in imitation of a sheep, they laughed, and began eating.

Think about it: You’ve raised this animal, cared for it, day after day, week after week, month after month, year upon year. You know it, its temperament, its moods, how it differs from its fellows. How do you set that shared life aside and simply have the animal killed without a thought or qualm?

I believe that doing so as all but impossible. Somehow it is necessary to acknowledge that animal life, the more so because you are going to have the animal butchered so that you can then eat its flesh. And so Sue acknowledged her relationship to the animal by uttering a ritual cry – Baaa! – before she ate of its flesh.

Every society has rules about how one behaves toward animals. When the society is very different from ours, and the rules seem rather arbitrary, we call them taboos and think them the superstitious detritus of unsophisticated minds. But we have such taboos ourselves: Have you ever eaten horse meat? Dog? Cat? Why not? I’m sure the flesh of those animals is quite edible. But eating those creatures is taboo in the West, except France, where horse meat is acceptable cuisine.

No, the existence of taboos is universal, though the details vary from culture to culture. They regulate our lives with other living creatures; they dictate how we admit them into our social world.

Nor is it just animals. Plants too. From the Wikipedia entry of Jain vegetarianism:

Jains make considerable efforts not to injure plants in everyday life as far as possible. but they only accept such violence inasmuch as it is indispensable for human survival, and there are special instructions for preventing unnecessary violence against plants. Jains don’t eat root vegetables such as potatoes, onions, roots and tubers, because tiny life forms are injured when the plant is pulled up and because the bulb is seen as a living being, as it is able to sprout. Also, consumption of most root vegetables involves uprooting & killing the entire plant. Whereas consumption of most terrestrial vegetables doesn’t kill the plant (it lives on after plucking the vegetables or it was seasonally supposed to wither away anyway).

There was a time when I thought Jainism was rather peculiar on this matter. But that was long ago. It’s not just that I’m willing to believe that reasonable adults can act on such beliefs, but that I experience potential seeds of beliefs in myself.

I’ve already mentioned how I felt sad when I accidentally broke the stem of an iris. At that same time I also noticed that I’d accidentally trampled another plant. That made me even sadder than breaking the iris stem.

Were I to think about that incident, perhaps to meditate on it, where would that lead?

No, I have no intention of investigating Jainism, but I am rethinking just what it means to live in a world with other living things, and non-living as well. As I asked the other day: How do you explain the wind? Is it not alive?

I ask these questions, not out of mere curiosity, but out of vital curiosity. Our lives depend on how we approach these issues. We know that our present modes of life, taken collectively, are unsustainable. We’re consume too many resources, destroying too many habitats, driving too many species to extinction. This cannot go on. If it does, we will destroy ourselves. That is to say, our children several generations down will turn on their parents and then on ourselves.

How can we prevent this from happening?

I do not believe that mere rational prudence is enough. It has no edge, no bite. No, we must learn to love other life forms as our own, and to value their lives and well-being. Just what that means, what it implies, I do not know. All I know is that it implies change.

We must change, or we will become the Apocalypse.

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