Recently, I had another one of my slaughterhouse nightmares. Each time I dream the dream, I'm one of the animals - usually a chicken or a pig or a cow - waiting to be slaughtered, and listening to the forlorn sounds of my fellow chickens or pigs or cows as they're on their way to the same destination.
I've had the dream before, or a variation of it, several times. I always wake up very abruptly from it with my heart racing. I usually get up and read or listen to old-time radio shows on my MP3 player to calm me down. But there are occasions when I call up YouTube and watch one of the many videos about the horrific treatment of animals. Why I do this, I don't know. I think it might be my own effort to confirm the reality of my nightmare (as if it needs confirming). Sometimes I think I stare down into the abyss as an act of solidarity with the animals who are victims of human beings and their violent ways.
I have a theory about these bad dreams. I think they're a form of penance for all the meat I've eaten over the years. There is something liberating about opening one's eyes to suffering - in this case, the suffering of animals. But it can also be a painful experience. Once you gain knowledge of a wrongdoing or an injustice or mass suffering that you were unaware of before, you begin to see the world in a different way. You can't go back to where you were before. You can't unlearn what you've learned. It is impossible to live in ignorance ever again. There are no excuses to go back to the old ways of doing things. And you wouldn't want to anyway, knowing what you know now.
The real challenge of waking up to the suffering of animals is that there is just so damned much of it. Dogs, cats and other companion animals are being euthanized on a daily basis. The factory farm system is murdering billions of animals each year. Vast numbers of aquatic animals suffer a similar fate. Mammals have their fur ripped off them so unfeeling men and women like Justin Trudeau can pose with his family for Christmas cards.
There is a mass insanity about the way that human beings behave when it comes to animals. And when you figure this out, and then gaze deeply into the abyss - without restraint, without compromise, without myths or rationalizations - it can drive you crazy. Truly it can. It has driven me slightly crazy, I admit. I have nightmares. I seek out quiet places and sob. And I can begin to understand why this mass insanity drives good people to violence. I do not condone violence. Violence is what drove me to veganism. Veganism is a rejection of violence. But in a society such as ours, where violence - especially violence against animals - is so pervasive, how can that culture not rub off on you? How can you walk away from it with your humanity completely intact?
The dilemma for the humanist who sees things with clarity and who feels things deeply in her or his heart is that the mass murderers are essentially running the system, fulfilling the basic mission of supply and demand to a public of which only a tiny percentage is vegan.
It is important to look on the bright side, if for no other reason than to avoid being driven to utter madness by the mass violence we confront on a day to day basis.
Our numbers are growing. Veganism is being embraced by growing numbers of people. Flagrant abuse of animals is now almost always met by protests of some sort. Good people are mobilizing. Industries that specialize in animal products are introducing reforms to improve public relations and placate protesters. As Gary Francione points out, these forms of welfarism are not to be celebrated because they're aimed chiefly at making the mass destruction of animals more palatable to the general public. Still, they can also be seen as a sign of big businesses on the defensive.
There are reasons to be encouraged. But then there is also that dark abyss that we look into, and it drives us to feel a sorrow that is beyond description. That sorrow is rooted in the heartfelt empathy we feel toward animals and their suffering. There has been so much murdering and it continues every minute of every day. Every day I visit Gary Francione's Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach to read his amazing insights and refreshing common sense. And each time I visit it, I am confronted with that god-awful counter on the left side of the page that shows the number of animals killed since I logged onto the homepage.
When I see that counter, I feel deeply shaken. It is a sign of our collective madness as human beings. It is a numerical portrait of a sick society. How does somebody with a caring heart and a sensitive mind keep from breaking down completely from the overpowering weight of despair?
The answer - and it is a painful one - is that we cannot look into the abyss all the time. Just as we did in our past lives, before we opened our eyes to this suffering, we have to find the things in life that bring us happiness and meaning. This means spending time with loved ones. It means laughing and savoring the sound of others laughing, especially children. It means going on peaceful walks and enjoying the taste of delicious vegan food and listening to the music that speaks to our souls or slipping our favorite movies in the DVD player for a few hours of escape. It means turning away from - but not forgetting about - all of the darkness, the evil.
Sometimes, this is easier said than done. Recently, I proudly sponsored a beautiful pig at an animal sanctuary. As I looked at his picture, and thought of the happy life he is living in a safe haven where animals are loved and cherished, I could not help but let my thoughts drift to his fellow pigs that weren't so lucky. The pigs that are castrated. The pigs whose tails are cut. The pigs that live short lives in dark spaces, overwhelmed by the sorrowful cries of thousands and thousands of their fellow pigs.
These cries, once heard, are impossible to forget. I think about all of the uplifting pep talks I give to my students in my history courses about how one person can make a difference and, to quote the late, great Robert Kennedy, we all ought to try. I am not being hypocritical when I give that talk because on a good day I actually believe it.
Yet there are times when we have to put aside the Can-Do Optimism that is hammered into our heads by our media and our culture. We have to shut out all of this static so that we can feel the sadness. We each need to create within us a reservoir where we allow the despair to reside.
Antonio Gramsci spoke of the need to be pessimists of the intellect and optimists of the will. What he meant by that, I think, is that we need to jettison the Pollyanna optimism and acknowledge the scale of the evil around us. But the balancing act involved here is that we cannot let it drive us crazy.
Because if there is any hope to end the mass suffering of animals - any hope whatsoever - it rests with those who have stared down into the abyss, who have felt the sorrow fully in their hearts, and who have taken a deeply personal vow to do whatever they can - what little they can - in our fleeting moment on earth to wage war against the madness. And who knows? Perhaps the day will not come when all animals will be born into a peaceful world that respects their dignity and right to life. Yet we owe it to them to preserve our sanity enough to do what little we can to advocate on their behalf.