by Dr. Linda Bender
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, humane and human were just two different spellings of the same word. To be humane in the Humane Society–sense meant the same thing as being human. It’s probably no accident that we began to need a separate word to describe the compassionate treatment of animals around the time we invented the sweatshop.We started confining people to factories and treating them like commodities before we got the idea of doing it to chickens. We denied the dignity of the human laborer before we denied the dignity of the plough horse. We began thinking of “pets” as consumer goods only after we had come to conceive of ourselves and our fellow humans as mere consumers. Nowadays we have to add an “e” to connote what the word “human” is supposed to mean: someone who demonstrates that he or she has a soul by treating other souls with respect and consideration.
The word “humane” conveys a sense of honorable conduct: the obligation of the strong to care for the weak or, as Buddhists teach, the duty of higher beings toward lower beings. I’m all for honorable conduct if it gets the job done, but I believe that in the final analysis, it doesn’t. To be humane sounds like it’s more of a nicety than a necessity. The chainsaws and bulldozers of necessity make short work of a nicety like saving the spotted owl. In so far as the fate of animals depends on our adding an “e” to human, they will continue to be victimized.
Mahatma Gandhi said that, “the greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” This is what makes respect for animals, not just a nicety, but also a necessity. A society in which animals are oppressed and exploited, their dignity denied and their lives deprived of meaning, is as miserable for its human citizens as it is for the animals. Why? Because what we do to animals, we also do to ourselves. When we eat the flesh of an animal that has been pumped full of antibiotics and hormones and subjected to constant stress, all of those toxins become part of our own bodies. When we destroy animal habitat, we destroy our own habitat as well. When our treatment of other living beings is dominated by economic expediency, humans, too, are cruelly treated. When we can no longer see the hurt in a neglected animal’s eyes, we have become hard-hearted toward our own pain.
On a spiritual level, the belief in animal inferiority has infected humans themselves with an inferiority complex. We can’t look down on animals without also looking down on those aspects of our nature that we have in common with them. The spiritual pecking order that places us above the animals then places us below the angels, so we tend to conceive of spiritual betterment as becoming more angel-like. Hierarchical spirituality values objectivity over feeling, abstraction over sensation, achievement over pleasure, the universal over the personal, and the mind over the body. It encourages top growth at the expense of root growth. Unable to reach deep into the earth where our nourishment lies, we become parched and desiccated. We also become incurably lonely— alienated not just from the Earth and from our fellow creatures, but from the parts of our own being that lie south of the neck.
Because hierarchical spirituality places God, the Source, at the very top of the pecking order, for many believers “God” seems unreachably remote. Whether we conceive God as literally living in Heaven or not, he (or she) might as well be there for all the hope we have of direct contact. The belief that our Source is somewhere “up there” leads to the belief that we have to get “up there” to connect. Many people conceive this happening in the afterlife. The Earth is just a place of temporary exile where one proves one’s worthiness to go to the place where the Source of all exists. If we regard the Earth as just a transient residence, it’s hardly any wonder that we turn it into a slum.
The hierarchical view that holds humans inferior to angels and animals inferior to humans is based on a faulty premise. All of God’s (or whatever name you choose) creations are perfect, and it is impossible for one perfect thing to be inferior to another perfect thing. All the creatures of the Earth have lives of meaning and purpose, aside from the values we place on them. Now more than ever, the nonhuman beings that share the Earth with us have been entrusted to our care. How we value all life forms and how we treat them are true measures of our humanity.
We also have trouble accepting ourselves. We see so much room for improvement in ourselves that we have a hard time believing that we are lovable. This is why the need between animals and humans is mutual. They need us to protect them and we need them to help us to feel happier.
We can’t make ourselves happier by directly emulating animals, because our nature is different from theirs in some fundamental ways. But when we love animals and form close bonds with them, some of their happiness rubs off on us. To watch them enjoying their lives makes us smile. Their good moods are infectious. Their affection for us has the power to reach the place in us that feels unworthy of being loved, and in feeling how they love us; we can feel how God loves us too.
If we are open to it, an even deeper rapport becomes possible. We can come to share their thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, to look at the world through their eyes and see what they find so good about it. In this way, animals can become our spiritual teachers. Animals have taught me to perceive the connectedness of all living things and to experience for myself the joy they experience in this connectedness. They have taught me to accept the limits of my own understanding and to relax into the mystery of existence. They have taught me how to be less afraid of death, and less afraid of all the other things that are not under my control. They have taught me how to lighten up and enjoy the present moment. Most of all, they have taught me how to find repose in the certainty that I am loved.
You might be wondering how this is possible. Animals can’t talk, so how can we know what they’re thinking and feeling? When I say that animals experience everything in the world as a part of God, the Source, how in the world do I know that? When shamans say that animals give their lives willingly so that others may eat, how do they know?
Animals are able to communicate telepathically. People have this ability too. In fact, it is often animals that awaken it in us. Intuitive exchanges between people and animals were the norm throughout most of our time on the planet. (They are still the norm in the few animistic cultures that remain on Earth.) What we now call Extrasensory Perception (ESP) used to be an everyday occurrence. People took it entirely for granted that you didn’t need to exchange words in order to communicate thoughts and feelings. It stopped being the norm because we talked ourselves out of it around the same time we talked ourselves out of believing that animals had souls.
The inability to recognize a soul when we see one is what causes our inborn telepathic powers to go on the blink. If we persist in ignoring our intuition long enough, it eventually atrophies to the point where it is no longer discernable. But this is easily remedied. When we start to pay attention again, our telepathic ability comes back, good as new.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Scientific research has demonstrated what I am saying to the satisfaction of all but the most hardened skeptics. You can reengage with universal reality, the universal mind, where all creation is inseparable— the reality in which animals exist. In that reality, we are able to hear the silent universal language of animals and engage in inner conversations with them. You don’t need to believe in advance that it is possible, for you will be able to judge this from your own experience.