When I was a young boy, my parents kept chickens in the garden. Not for the eggs, but for slaughter. We had about thirty per year. My father raised them, and at the end of their short lives brought them to a slaughterer, who finished the job. After that, they’d land in our freezer and later ended up on our plates. It was my parents’ way to eat “better” meat, healthier especially.
From a young age, I empathized with these chickens. Now and then, there were weak or wounded ones among them. These often got pecked on by their fellows. I used to take care of them. I took a cardboard box, put straw, water and feed in it, and put it inside the house, next to the stove, where the animal would be warm, and hoped the chicken would get better. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.
We also had a few goats. This wasn’t for cheese or anything, but because my brother had wanted them. I liked those goats. One night, I dreamed (or thought I dreamed) of a goat crying. I just slept on, thinking it wasn’t real. The next morning, I heard that one of the goats had fallen in the pond, and hadn’t been able to climb back out. I cried my eyes out after hearing that, and I still feel bad about it (maybe I could have realized it wasn’t a dream, I could have gotten up).
Recently, I was sitting on a subway train, and a homeless or poor person was asking for money. In front of me were two women, each of them briefly looking at the man. On the one woman’s face, I saw (or thought I saw) indifference. On the other woman’s face, I saw empathy and compassion. I felt so much sympathy for the latter woman, and remember thinking: “You care, that’s so beautiful.” I was moved. But, my next thought was: who or what was it that made her into a caring person? Was it a decision she made herself? And, if so, what gave her the power to make that decision? Regarding the other woman (if my perception was correct), was it her own fault that she didn’t care or cared less? I felt that each one of these people was a product of their upbringing, their environment, their genes.
Empathy for animals came to me from a very young age. I purposely wrote “came to me”. I didn’t look it up. I didn’t decide to have empathy for animals. I was six or something, and it was already there.
Some people have less of it than I have, some have more. I don’t know why I had or have the amount of empathy I do (or for that matter, the amount of will or discipline to put that empathy into practise). Maybe everyone is born with empathy, but we need to be lucky to have people around us who cherish and nurture it, rather than telling us we don’t need to have it.
I haven’t made up my mind about how much free will we have, but in any case, I believe that the control we have, about who we are, what we believe, and even what we do, is limited. I’m sure that empathy is, to some extent, teachable, and surely we can influence other people, help them to be better, through our educating efforts.
But having empathy also means we need to understand that, maybe through no fault of their own, some people start out with less of it.