Why does animal suffering hurts so much?

 

I’ve encountered a lot of sad animal stories — in books, on the web, and in real life — recently, and I’ve mused over why I find them so distressing in a recent post for Religion News Service.

A friend, commenting there, noted that one of the reasons animal suffering may break our hearts so much is because animals are so very innocent; so very dependent. It reminded me of This American Life host Ira Glass’s rationale for why he cares for his incredibly high-maintenance dog, Piney.

Graeme&Molly

Here is a bit of my RNS post:

“The peaceable kingdom of God includes a vision of animals living happily with and among people:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6)

and

And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground: and I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the earth, and will make them to lie down safely. (Hosea 2:18)

Part of human longing for home — a longing that often looks a lot like faith — seems to include the hope that not just we, but our animals, too, will find a place beyond suffering, beyond fear, beyond death itself.”

{Read more here.}

 

Parasites, People, Pain; Anger, Frustration, Futility. And Hope. Eventually.

I haven’t been writing much, especially not here, in a while. At the risk of oversharing–and to put it in sweet, verbose evangelicalese–I have been blessed with the opportunity to graciously host a variety of God’s precious microscopic creatures in my home and body, and in the bodies of several of my family members. So grateful to do my part to facilitate the growth and development of these vigorous and rapidly adaptable creatures! I have to admire their resiliency–how quickly they learn to resist the drugs that brilliant scientists are constantly racing to produce to destroy them and their kind!

What perseverance.

Extending hospitality (and, subtle hints that it was time to go, and then, eventually, eviction notices) to these creatures has occupied much time and energy. I’ll spare you explicit details, but let us say that both the Giardia family and the P. Falciparums have been making themselves at home and encouraging them to make their departure has involved numerous trips to the doctor as well as the lavatory, and more than a few potentially carcinogenic remedies.

(As a chemist friend recently told me, the whole thing with drugs is that they’re designed to kill the stuff that can potentially kill you…without killing YOU in the process, too. Encouraging words from a professional, no?)

The Giardias, who regret this staid, old-school studio portrait. They wish they could've been leaning against a barn badly in need of a paint job while laughingly looking at each other in wonderfully "casual" postures, perhaps with the kiddos in a wheelbarrow for good measure.
The Giardias, who regret this staid, old-school studio portrait. They wish they could’ve been photographed while leaning against a barn badly in need of a paint job while casting whitened, straightened, adoring toothy grins at one another, perhaps with the kiddos in a vintage red wagon for good measure.
The P. Falciparums, on the other hand, are feeling retro-fabulous in olive greens. #nofilter
The P. Falciparums, on the other hand, are feeling retro-fabulous in olive greens and distressed browns. #nofilter

One of my sons is so robustly healthy that he’s scarcely been ill for an entire day in his life. No exaggeration. If a member of the Rhinovirus clan so much as glances his way, his immune system scares it away with a mighty roar. The only time he needed antibiotics was for a spider bite that got infected from being scratched too much. He was the fruit of a pregnancy during which I survived on Breyer’s vanilla ice cream, selected specific flavors of Jelly Belly beans, and Canada Dry ginger ale. So basically: sugar.

{The other son, who was nourished in utero on organic kale and quinoa and whatnot–he’s another story. (And I’m not giving prenatal nutritional advice. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is SO not a legit thing, okay, no matter how many times folks tell you that living in areas with high concentrations of armadillos makes you more likely to get a divorce.}

Anyway, this second son gets dramatically sick. His normally prodigious appetite vanishes, as well as any trace of his equally prodigious mirth. (If you ask him whether he plans to be a comedian when he grows up, he’ll tell you, with a straight face, “No–I plan to be a chameleon!” and then guffaw with laughter. I won’t give you his whole medical history, but let’s just say he’s sampled urgent medical care in no less than five countries and three continents, and this past week his condition gave my prayers (and the prayers of many other beloved folks–thanks, dear ones!) an especially desperate tone.

This morning, the woman who helps me keep house came. (Yes, yes, I have hired help. If I didn’t, I would be considered a horrible rude mean selfish person who withholds employment from others when I have the means to employ them. Just doing my trickle-down part here, folks. I actually LIKE to clean my own house, so there!) And over coffee, I told her about my son’s illness, and we thanked God for mercifully allowing him to be restored to health. And then I asked her about mosquito nets.

She doesn’t have one, because her kids have some, and even a cheap net costs several times more than the average Malawian earns in a day…and people have to eat. People have to pay for school fees. So she takes her chances. As we continued talking, it became clear that she wasn’t entirely aware that malaria comes from mosquitoes at all. I explained (briefly and probably slightly inaccurately) how malaria was eradicated in the USA, and how folks like Bill Gates are helping to find a way to get rid of it in places like Malawi, too.

I have heard crazy stories, stories of well-meaning people coming in from the west to distribute nets in areas where malaria isn’t much of a problem–the kind of thing that eases middle-class consciences but does little to prevent death and illness. I have heard of teenagers and adults with long-term, chronic damage from malaria (of which they were unaware) becoming acutely ill and dying within hours or days. Last year, the young man (I’ll call him Nick) who was helping us in the yard and learning some basic carpentry skills had a baby who got sick and died at around 3 months–and we don’t even know why.

These are people who don’t have the kind of insurance that pays to Medivac them to state-of-the-art hospitals.

What about their urgent prayers, and those of their loved ones? Does God not hear those prayers?

And how to respond? I can buy a net for my house helper, but not for everyone. There are stories of hope, for sure, but also so very many stories with tragic endings. We got a call from Nick at 2 am telling us his baby boy was gone, and it was so fast that this was the first time we’d even heard that the baby was ill.

There are no answers. Even to try to explain these things is almost always to do a kind of violence to human experience, or to speak ill of God, who, in spite of everything, I believe to be holy, just, loving, and good. The only thing I can cling to is the thought that Jesus took on flesh. As a poor boy and young man in a village, he probably played host to more than a few parasites. He took on all of this. He took hate and abuse and an absolutely unjust punishment.

And he didn’t just conquer P. Falciparum, or Giardia, or Rhinovirus, or E.Coli, or HIV/AIDS or rotavirus. He conquered death itself.

But I still think he would be handing out mosquito nets and supporting those people standing all day in laboratories trying to find cures for all these ills. Come to think of it, perhaps he is. Through the hands and feet and faces of all kinds of people, perhaps he is.

The Everyday Famine(s)

You won’t hear about it in the news because it isn’t news. It’s just what’s normal here.

Every day, or nearly so, the clanging sound of metal hitting metal lets me know that someone’s at the gate that surrounds our home, bringing vegetables or fish or charcoal or wooden carvings to sell. It happens often enough that the sound elicits annoyance from me as I leave the stove, or my book, or the couch to answer the call. And often enough, the people are so desperate to sell that if I say “not today,” they’ll plead with me, lowering the price with every word. But occasionally—at least once a week—someone comes to the gate with nothing to sell, nothing to offer at any price. They’re coming, very simply, to beg for food.

It’s summer here in the southern hemisphere, and corn is growing in every spare bit of earth in which it can possibly be grown, with pumpkin and squash vines bearing their orbed fruit between the rows. The corn will be allowed to dry on the husk before being harvested, after which women in villages will pound it to a fine flour that they’ll cook into nsima (nn-SEE-ma) the thick, polenta-like dish that forms the staple of people’s diets. Pumpkins—and their edible greens—along with okra, beans, and tomatoes will become stews to give the bland, starchy dough some flavor. It’s tastier than it sounds, and it fills you up.

But in these months—in February and March, as people are waiting for the harvest—their stored corn begins to run out, and they enter the ‘hungry months.’ What corn remains is rationed carefully, and two daily meals become one small meal, or none at all. As I walk and drive along the streets, I can see people using canes of bamboo to coax guava or papaya or avocado out of tall trees. When people pass me in the street, they often chew sugar cane before spitting them out, slowly and carefully extracting whatever sweetness might remain in the fibrous bits of plant. People walk slowly. Women in labor hardly have the strength to bring forth babies. These are the hungry months.

Despite this, corn—maize, they call it—is regarded with nothing less than reverence. “Nsima is our food,” James, our gardener, tells me. “If you don’t have nsima, you don’t have life.” Nsima—and foods like it—are to much of the world today what bread was to the ancient Near East when Jesus ministered there. “I am the bread of life” was meaningful in that context in a way that’s difficult for us to grasp. For most of us, bread is just one of many choices, and we may forgo it altogether if we’re going low-carb or gluten-free or Paleo. For them—for many people in the world—no bread, no rice, no nsima—means hunger. It means weakness. It means lifelessness. Eventually, it means death.

Every day, or nearly so, women and men look in mirrors and step on scales, count calories and worry about body fat and about their appearance. It happens enough that children as young as four begin to develop anxiety over food, or express fears of being seen in a bathing suit. Even eating healthfully can become an unhealthy obsession. And often enough, people become so desperate to get control over their eating as to spend huge amounts of money on drugs, diet plans, and surgery. Occasionally, the burden of eating; of bodily existence itself, is too much to bear, and people lose their lives to anorexia—the deadliest of all mental illnesses.

But even with the superstores filled full in season and out of season with food of all kinds in every space where food can possibly be so, many of us still struggle to extract whatever goodness might remain in God’s gift of food. We ration carefully so as not to overindulge, or we use food to comfort ourselves when we are feeling lonely or anxious. We eat thoughtlessly and on the run. In this land of plenty, we remain hungry, disconnected, unsatisfied. Those at the gates—people who are poor in America—are more likely to suffer diseases associated with poor diets because the ‘plenty’ doesn’t extend into the food deserts.

Despite all this—despite the tens of thousands of children who die each day because they don’t have enough food, despite the mothers who die giving birth because their bodies have never been nourished properly, despite those who suffer bitterly from the various ills associated with greed and overabundance—I believe we can, and should—“eat with joy.” It’s a phrase that comes from Ecclesiastes, a book that reflects, and is reflected in, a good many people’s experiences of life “under the sun.” We look for justice, and find injustice; time and chance sometimes trump hard work and intelligence. Still, urges the Preacher, even in this messy, confusing world, with hunger and poverty and injustice always with us, we should, as we are able, enjoy the good things of this life with an enjoyment tempered by the knowledge that life is fleeting, and that we have obligations to God and to one another.

And so when the sound of metal hitting metal pulls me away from my computer once again, I fill a bag with cornmeal and give it away with a smile, because that’s what I can do right where I am. But wherever you are—whether among people hurting from plenty, or hurting from want—you can do something, too.