“I understand why people need knives,” Christopher said. “Knives are useful for a lot of things, like cutting rope! But a gun is only good for killing something.”
Chris, aged 12, was with a group of kids from an inner-city rec center we’d just taken to see the art exhibit, “Memorial to Our Lost Children,” dedicated to kids killed by gunfire. His words still echo in my mind. But you don’t need a gun to kill something, and there are many ways to die.
A few weeks ago I heard about a lady who witnessed someone throwing puppies out of a moving car. She gathered up the puppies — five of them — and hurried them to a shelter. Three survived. Later, she had to take them back to the shelter after her landlord objected to her fostering them until they recovered, physically at least. How many things died here? Certainly the two puppies. But what of the person hurling them to their deaths?
You don’t get to that level of heartlessness without something in your soul having died, possibly a long time ago. And the woman who witnessed the act, what died for her that day? Part of her spirit maybe, her faith in people, in God … in anything? And what died for the shelter workers and others who were witness to her story?
Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel said, “I denounce indifference to evil as much as I try to denounce evil itself.” Wiesel’s evil was, of course, death camps and gas chambers, the same apparatus once used to kill unwanted animals. Indeed, the ripple effect of any act of heartlessness or indifference is capable of killing a lot of things in its wake: trust, hope, faith, even the belief that one is deserving of kindness, respect, or love. While a body may live on, something in the soul or spirit dies.
Indifference is defined as: “showing no interest, concern, or feeling; apathetic; unmoved; deeming something or someone to be of no consequence or importance.” It breeds neglect, which is “to give little attention or respect; to omit through indifference; disregard; leave undone or unattended through carelessness” (i.e. careless.) Physical, mental and emotional abuse kills as well, and all three have something in common: intention, defined as “the determination to do, or not do something.”
Refusing to spay or neuter pets is one example. Even if owners find homes for the offspring, animals in the shelter who may have gone home with those folks are now at risk of being euthanized when the shelter runs out of space, which is pretty much all the time. Bringing puppies and kittens to a shelter before they’re weaned means they may die anyway because they’re too little to survive without their moms.
Rescue workers save as many as they can and watch as others die, along with a little piece of their hearts. I also remember a man who brought several feral cats he’d trapped to a shelter just so they could be put down. His disregard for their lives also fell on the shelter staff who then had to carry out the act of euthanizing the cats. The sickeningly gleeful look on this man’s face haunts me to this day. It’s the same sick smile we saw on the dentist who killed Cecil the lion, and other “canned hunters” holding up the “trophy” they killed because it was trapped and couldn’t get away.
Humans tend to name things by what they can get from them or what they don’t like about them: target, specimen, test subject, breeder, runt, nuisance, pest, enemy. And when these beings suffer, are tortured, or die, many could “care less.”
Last week, in one of my counseling groups, we talked about how people become desensitized, numbed to the suffering of others. One client reflected, “It’s scary when you suddenly realize how desensitized you’ve become.” “Yeah,” said another, “and when you’re that desensitized, you’ll accept anything.”
My clients have all done prison time and, after losing everything including their freedom, many seem to have discovered their humanity.
“So, how do we sensitize people?” the interviewer asked. Wiesel replied, “With knowledge, and with memory.”
Knowledge alone won’t do it. Lots of people know things, but indifference stops them from acting on it. For that, we need to remember our own experiences of suffering, of witnessing death … and maybe of a time when we felt connected to everyone and everything.
“If we forget,” Wiesel says, “we are desensitized, too.” That said, here’s to our memories.