On our way to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences yesterday we drove past a dog running around in the median. He (I am as guilty as anyone with my dog gender bias - dogs are male until proven otherwise. I apologize - it's really nothing but a shorthand) did not appear to be hurt, but looked frightened, looking for a way to get out of the center of the road without getting hit. There was not an immediate place for us to turn around, but by the time we had made it back, the dog had either been picked up or escaped the road on his own. So although it was a happy ending, it left me shaken - I could not help but imagine the poor dog's terror. I anthropomorphize, I know. But imagined or real, the dog's fear stayed with me. And I started to think about animals in slaughterhouses and the fear that they must feel at the noises, smells and machinery around them, even if they have no idea what their eventual end is going to be. And although I know it does not actually solve the problem, I am glad to be vegetarian. In fact, there are few life changes that I have been so confident and happy about. I only regret that I did not make that decision earlier.
And then we arrived at the museum. I have to say, the museum is quite spectacular. It is beautiful and full of very interesting and arresting specimens. There are whale skeletons and stuffed local fauna, as well as live snakes, lizards and bugs. There is a fantastic butterfly room where it is all but impossible to avoid touching the butterflies that swirl and flutter through the air. There is a sloth (predictably immobile and hidden) and hummingbirds which we also did not see. And there is a large collection of dinosaur fossils, all of which are locally found, including the only fossil ever found with a (possibly) fossilized heart. I was entertained, I was educated, but mostly I was shaken.
It was a very emotional experience. Nature frightens me and shocks me with its brutality. The phenomenal Discovery Channel/ BBC film Planet Earth was one of the most emotionally draining films because of the violence and grimness of life. Of course there is beauty, but beauty is never the point of nature - survival is the point, and survival is ugly. I remember the segment about a starving polar bear who failed to catch seals and would most likely starve to death. Our social conventions tend to sympathize with the prey, but when an antelope escapes with its life, it often escapes with the life of the predator as well. Life is hard, and no creature is more or less deserving of life than the next. The more I think about this, the more I see the circle of life displayed in dioramas, the more I see the food chain illustrated with stuffed specimens, the more crushing the whole experience becomes.
I want to be clear: I am not passing any kind of judgment on the viciousness of nature. It is just life, plain and simple. In fact, the more I wandered the museum, I felt more and more aware of life, and life became a single all-encompassing item. The death of a penguin and the life of an Orca were essentially equal. And suddenly - I think it was on the third floor of the museum - I was overwhelmed with the strength and fragility of life. I was both honored and ashamed to be a part of it. There is a line that the insufferable Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza has often cited - clearly he is proud of his witticism - (I paraphrase) "why should we honor animal rights when animals themselves do not honor animal rights?" In a way this is true. Animals have no sense of justice or fairness in regards to other species - they are only concerned with survival. A lion or hyena feels - rightly - justified in eating a gazelle. This gazelle is also justified in denying the predator their meal. No matter the outcome of the chase, something is going to die.
I have recently finished reading Bart Ehrman's excellent book God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question - Why We Suffer. I highly recommend the book, and I do not think I am giving anything away when I say that Ehrman considers the problem of human suffering to be a major obstacle for the existence of god. War, famine, genocide and disease all contribute to the suffering of humans - in the time it took you to read this essay, dozens of children have died of starvation, hundreds more of other causes. Human suffering is real and ever present, but it is only the tip of the iceberg.
So what is the solution? There isn't one. I can close my eyes. I can shutter my mind against suffering. We watched a movie a few years ago called The Year of the Dog which explores a reaction to exposure to suffering. The movie was unsatisfying because there was no real answer; even the lead character ended up just joining a PETA-type group and traveling around the country in a bus to participate in protests. There were numerous heartbreaking scenes in the movie, including a sequence where she goes to the pound and adopts all of the dogs on 'death row' - about a dozen dogs. While that provided a bit of comedy, it was very, very real and I felt a little bit of helplessness. I sympathized with her - I imagine most of us do - because we all want to end suffering and death but there is just too much for any of us to handle. There is too much for all of us to handle. And to fret about suffering is dangerous - it's a slippery slope and can easily lead to crushing depression.
The trick, I suppose, is to learn just how much awareness you can handle. Some people can handle a lot. Some people can handle very little. It's easy to take on more than you can handle, but if you do, you are on a dangerous road. How did I handle it? I was extremely anxious to get home to our dogs. If I do my job right, then at least these two animals will experience minimal fear, hunger and suffering.