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Should We Prioritize Our Compassion?
I have been vegetarian for almost seven years and I was vegan for two of
those years. I have been struggling with an ethical dilemma. After spending
several months working overseas in Guatemala, I felt that veganism was not
for me. Aside from the dietary struggles facing a vegan in the poorer
countries of the world, I faced some value conflicts. After seeing the
extreme poverty and suffering of many Guatemalans, the plight of animals
just seemed less important. Also, as a guest in the homes of my Guatemalan
coworkers, I was given meat during mealtime, even after explaining that I
didn't eat meat. At the risk of appearing rude and ungrateful (meat is
reserved for special guests and celebrations in Guatemala), I ate the meal
they offered to me, trying to hide my disgust and dislike.
It seems that regardless of our actions in this modern era, there is
suffering involved, even for those of us who are trying to live a
compassionate life. From driving a car to eating vegetables picked by
exploited immigrant labor, we are surrounded by suffering. Not to say that
the plight of animals should be ignored, but shouldn't the human condition
come first? Even in this country there are people who suffer from hunger and
malnutrition, a problem thought to belong only to the Third World. In this
context, it is hard for me to empathize with animals. It seems like a
logical step that when the human condition all over the world improves, that
the plight of animals will follow. But the reverse may not hold true. All
creatures deserve compassion, but it seems necessary to prioritize at times,
doesn't it? This is quite an internal struggle that I am facing and I
imagine there are others who are facing a similar one.
There has always been suffering in the world, and there will likely always
be suffering in one form or another. For those who choose to deliberately
devote their lives to creating a more compassionate world, the amount of
suffering that exists can seem overwhelming. How do we determine the issues
that are most important, and how do we prioritize which groups are most
deserving of our attention? If our primary consideration is the sheer number
of lives affected by exploitation, torture, and death, animals raised and
slaughtered for food would surely win hands down.
Suffering is suffering, regardless of who is experiencing it. We humans tend
to have the greatest empathy for our own species, much like other animals.
We can relate to what other people go through because we know that the
events of our lives, our emotions, and our hopes and dreams are similar. We
naturally want to help other people, and we can understand and appreciate
their trials and tribulations.
It is a greater challenge to identify with other animals who do not
communicate in a language that even remotely replicates our own and whose
physical characteristics and emotional framework are vastly different from
the human body and psyche. At times it may take a leap of faith to believe
that other animals suffer the same as we do. In large part this is due to
our lack of regular interaction with animals. While we can witness the
behavior of our dog or cat, most species do not exhibit pain as blatantly as
people; we usually need to study their cues that signal discomfort,
distress, or more serious afflictions. Without training and ongoing
exposure, it is easy for us to overlook the subtle indications of suffering
that are rampant among other species, and which are most frequently caused
by human neglect or intentional harm.
While it is true that there are people who are hungry and homeless
throughout North America, in terms of individuals, cats and dogs who are
hungry and without homes greatly outnumber their human counterparts. If we
take into account the vast numbers of animals abused in sports, vivisection,
entertainment, and hunting, the figures are staggering.
Being compassionate people entails making compassionate choices every moment
of our lives. At times these choices will be clear-cut and easy; at other
times, we may be confused and stymied. Caring for one group of living beings
does not preclude us from caring for another group. Although we may not have
the money or time necessary to help all the groups that need and deserve our
assistance, we can ensure that the personal choices we make, no matter how
small and seemingly insignificant, contribute to the greater good for all.
We cannot save all the starving people in Third World countries, but we can
smile at our neighbors. We cannot rescue all the homeless people in our own
country, but we can volunteer to help at a food pantry, mission, or shelter.
We cannot single-handedly stop the brutal wars around the globe, but we can
participate in peaceful protests and learn how to transform the anger and
violence in our own hearts and relationships. We cannot take in all the
abandoned children of the world, but we can mentor a child in our community.
We cannot save all the billions of animals that are tortured, euthanized,
and slaughtered each year, but we can adopt a dog, cat, or rabbit from a
shelter or donate financially to a farmed animal sanctuary.
To support all of these concerns, we can also practice a vegan lifestyle.
Even if it is not ideal or perfectly consistent, or even practical in every
situation, we can do our best. That is all any of us can do at any given
time. We can make the most compassionate choices given the limitations of
our own humanity, and we can do so without ignoring the plight of one group
in order to help another.
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