I recently finished reading Mark Hawthorne’s book, Striking at the Roots: A Practical Gide to Animal Activism. In the last chapter, he talks a lot about guilt, and how animal rights activists generally carry around a lot of it: they often feel like they’re not doing enough for animals, they feel guilty if they take time away from activism, they feel guilty if they say the wrong thing or don’t say enough….the list goes on.
I can relate to this, mainly because the suffering of animals is never far from my mind. If it’s a bitterly cold day outside, I think of the animals on slaughterhouse trucks and feel guilty that I don’t mention them when someone complains about the temperature outside. When I’m menstruating, a cycle that is always accompanied by tender breasts and painful uterine cramps for me, I think of the mother cows, their lactating and swollen udders attached to mechanical milk machines multiple times a day, and I feel guilty for giving in to any of my own pain. Perhaps some of it is not so much guilt as it is an awareness: now that I know what animals endure day after day, it changes the context for how I process my own suffering.
But something else occurred to me recently: I still carry the guilt for all those years of meat, dairy and egg eating. I’ve been a vegan for a little over 3 years now, but for the 39 years prior to that, I ate meat, dairy, eggs, wore leather, fur, silk, wool, went to zoos and circuses. Some of that was not up to me because I was a child but well into adulthood I kept at it, even making fun of the people and animals I now hold so close to my heart. Though I may not have known the extent of the animal suffering I was contributing to, at some point that stops being an excuse. Just because I was taught not to ask those questions doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have. Despite my decision to go vegan, I am still culpable for what I did to contribute to animal captivity and death for at least three decades.
In Michael Moore’s documentary, Where To Invade Next, he visits several countries in an effort to “take something back” to the U.S. to help fix his broken and troubled country. In Italy, he “takes” their approach to work-life balance. In Iceland, he takes their approach to prosecuting white-collar crime, particularly when those crimes devastate an entire country’s economy. And in Germany, he brings home the lesson of taking ownership of their past sins, whether they willingly knew about them or not:
Everyday in Germany, in every school, they teach the young what their predecessors did. They don’t whitewash it. They don’t pretend it didn’t happen. They don’t say, “Hey, that was before my time. What’s this got to do with me? I didn’t kill anyone.” They treat is as their original sin, a permanent mark on their collective German soul, one for which they must always seek redemption and make reparation and never forget.
Of course he is referring to World War II and the genocide committed by Germany of at least six million people whose only “crime” was to be Jewish. But rather than rationalizing their own history as, “a different time” or “just the way things were”, the people of Germany today must continue to carry that burden; they not only own up to that part of their heritage but continue to teach it to younger generations. This is what I realize I must do with animal suffering – though I no longer contribute to it, I was a participant in it for many years, and I must never forget that.
There is such a thing as unhealthy guilt, the kind that leads to crippling shame to the point that it lowers our own self-worth and paralyzes us so much that we cannot move forward from our past or change it for the better. There is also the burnout we can mistake for guilt, continuing to work and push ourselves beyond what is healthy or sustainable, as if punishing ourselves beyond reason will make our past actions untrue. But there is such a thing as valid guilt – like the collective kind all of humanity should feel for the misery and suffering we continue to inflict on 60 billion animals each year for food, clothing and entertainment and I believe this is an essential part of the process of learning to view and treat animals differently than we currently do.
And this is where animals come in. Like innocent children who have been abused and neglected, they continue to give us chances to change. Whether I’m visiting rescued animals at a sanctuary or talking to doomed animals on slaughterhouse trucks, they continue to come near humans. Despite our disgraceful treatment of them, they still come closer for a look or allow us to touch them and stroke their skin, fur, or feathers – and they have no reason to. Rather, animals have every reason to repel and resist and run screaming from us (and I wish all were given the right to, frankly). Yet, they still meet our gaze and they still allow us to share their space, despite depriving them of their own for their entire lives. This is forgiveness. This is what animals give us after everything we’ve done to them. This is what we can learn from them; not how they respond to experiments, not how they can be forced to perform stupid tricks for our amusement, not how they behave when we cut their throats but forgiveness. Animals demonstrate an incredible capacity to show us mercy and it remains our loss that we continue to not only overlook it, but to take it for granted by supporting any industry that relies on their pain and death to even exist.
Being vegan will never undo the past but it will change the future. By becoming vegan, I made a choice to change. I made a choice to become a different and better person. By refusing to participate in the exploitation of animals for food, entertainment and clothing, I decide where my money goes, and where my ethics stand. Taking that a step further, beyond just my food choices, activism is a way to atone for my previous wrongs against animals and a way to inform my fellow humans that, despite our past, this does not have to be our future: we do not have to be a species that enslaves another in order to survive. There is another way and vegans and activists all over the world are proving every day that what we previously thought unthinkable is very much in our hands to make possible.
I leave you with one final quote from Where to Invade Next, beautifully narrated by Michael Moore in the film, a man whose clearly compassionate heart I hope one day will extend to including animals:
If there’s one thing we should steal from the Germans, it’s the idea that if you acknowledge your dark side and make amends for it, you can free yourself to be a better people and to do well by others. If they can do it, surely we can.
And my vegan heart would add: if we can do this for humans, surely we can do this for animals too.