Vegans or not, we all turn away from suffering at times

Vegans often talk about how non-vegans shut themselves off from animal suffering. Those non-vegans know – it is assumed – certain facts about animals, but choose to block them out. When they have a chance to find something out about animal suffering (like watching a YouTube video), they often won’t take the opportunity because they’re afraid they won’t like what they see.

I think all of this is often wrongly interpreted as indifference. It is exactly because most people are not indifferent to suffering that they will try to turn away and try not to feel what’s going on. When they don’t want to know, they are, of course, also choosing for their own convenience: they want to avoid having to change and losing their piece of meat. But the fact that they believe they should change something, and therefore avoid the confrontation, indicates, in itself, that they care, on some level.

This avoidance and turning away is a pity, of course, but maybe rather than being too judgmental about this behavior, it might be good to realize that all of us do it, all the time, to some extent. Whether we are vegan or non-vegan, at some point we all need to say no, close our ears and our eyes and even our hearts. Otherwise, life is, unfortunately, not livable.

Let me illustrate this with a situation from my own life. Apart from her job in a veg organization, my girlfriend rescues cats. We have six rescued cats and two dogs living permanently in our home, but apart from these animals, there’s always a variable amount of cats “in transition”, waiting for another home. They were picked up from the street, abandoned by their “owners”, or whatnot.

Whenever my girlfriend gets notified about animals in need – they might be sick, blind, full of fleas or other parasites, etc. – she tries to find a solution. She’ll be on Facebook and email to find temporary housing for the animal, so that he or she can heal, be sterilized and vaccinated, before a forever home is found.

There seem to be, however, always more animals in need than people to care for them. So open goes our own door, and yet another animal comes in. Yes, there may be room for one more. And one more. And one more. But at some point, there’s a limit. At some point, we have to say no. And even if my girlfriend manages to find some kind of a solution most of the time, we know that there are cats out there who are suffering and need care. It doesn’t stop at cats, by the way. She gets calls about all kinds of animals.

Our car, loaded up with two rescued sheep being transported to their new home.
Our car, loaded up with two rescued sheep being transported to their new home.

Because of course, there are many more animals out there, other than cats, that we could help. Many animal advocates get bombarded with notifications and pleas and pictures and petitions about animals who need our attention or our donation. And it never stops.

Obviously we can go beyond animals: there’s a refugee crisis in Europe and most people reading this probably have the opportunity to create some room in their homes to temporarily house one or more refugees. But hardly anyone (including me) does that. Likewise, we all could give more money to help these people, or to other causes that we deem worthy and effective, but there’s always a limit we set to our donations (and for most people it’s a rather low one).

Of course, saying that there is always a limit, and that all of us turn away or close our hearts at some point, doesn’t mean we need to do nothing. I agree that some things require less personal effort than others. Going vegan is, at least after awhile, probably easier than giving away significant donations every year (though we can ask the question about whether it is as effective). But the thing is, we can always find people who are doing more than others: people who are more vegan, who rescue and feed more animals, who donate more.

In this world where there is so much suffering, it’s hard to do enough. Doing your best is maybe never really your best, because you can always do better. We can spend more money on good causes, and watch less Netflix, and help more.

But of course, reasoning like this, and experiencing the world like this, is no way to live. It is a recipe for burnout and depression. There will be huge and extreme suffering for quite some time on this planet (I’m an optimist, I don’t believe it necessarily needs to be here forever), so those of us who are really sensitive to it, need to find a way to deal with it.

So maybe some takeaways from these rambling thoughts:

  • rather than labeling others as indifferent, we can remember that turning away is a matter of degree and that we all do it
  • we can set an example for others to follow, and help “normalize” doing good
  • as the suffering is endless right now and our resources are insufficient, it’s important to do good effectively. If you are not yet, familiarize yourself with the philosophy of Effective Altruism.
  • be sustainable in your activism. Know that you cannot avoid turning away now and then. Paradoxically, you are probably a better friend to the animals by not witnessing and worrying about their suffering all of the time.

 

 

Comments

comments

3 thoughts on “Vegans or not, we all turn away from suffering at times

  1. Thanks for another wise lesson and insight, Tobias. This has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn:

    “It is exactly because most people are not indifferent to suffering, that they will try to turn away and try not to feel what’s going on.”

    I know a woman who loves to proclaim how much she loves animals, while at the same time eating a sausage biscuit or some other animal product. When I’ve tried to explain to her about factory farming and how the animals are treated, etc., she has always pushed me away saying that’s “too horrible to think about.”

    This was extremely frustrating to me…how can she say she loves animals but still eat them?!? Then one day it hit me…it’s exactly because she loves animals that she wants to turn away. It’s still frustrating for me, but I at least have some compassion for her now, which helps to lesson my frustration.

    Although it doesn’t make any sense to many of us that a person could turn away from so much suffering, especially if they claim to love animals, but with more understanding like you’ve presented here, Tobias, it can help to ease our frustration.

    Unfortunately, there are people who will always turn away, no matter what method you use to try to reach them. This is another wise lesson on how to spend our limited time on where it will have the most impact.

    Thanks, Tobias!
    🙂

  2. Illuminating post, as always–thank you! I can’t help wondering how many willfully ignorant but fundamentally compassionate people end up going veg at some point. My hunch is that quite a few of them do. I would love to see some research on that. Not incidentally, I appreciate your cautionary words about burnout. 🙂

  3. I think there’s a big difference between willfully engaging in activities that you know are harmful to, in this case, animals, and not being able to try to minimize suffering where possible. In the first case, you are contributing to the problem of suffering, whilst in the second, you’re not trying to reduce suffering, but you’re also not contributing to it (in most cases, e.g. refugee crises, as long as you’re not (in)directly supporting the reason people are fleeing).

    This means that one is, in my opinion, less in the wrong ethically for looking the other way when there’s suffering that one’s not responsible for in any way, than looking the other way whilst causing the suffering.

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