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On Suffering

The causes of suffering in this world are manifold, and many of them are unavoidable. Yet reflections on suffering can take one to worthwhile places.

The mosque shootings in New Zealand caused many of us to suffer. Minute-by-minute news coverage forced us to face the bloodshed. It turned our world upside down that suffering like this could happen right on our doorstep. Suddenly the boogey man was all too real.

The concept of collective suffering - the suffering of a nation - is interesting. During the mosque shootings people gathered together, trying to get into the centre of the flock and find comfort in each other. We were like many sheep, soft and wooly, forming a tight circle to avoid the outside blows.

I was away from the flock when the shootings happened, although I have always considered myself a bit of a black sheep in New Zealand society anyway. I have the recessive gene that causes unpopular opinions.

I didn’t always have unpopular opinions. When I was younger, many moons ago, I decided to purge news from my life so that I did not have to think. This lessens the chances you will have an opinion on things. I did not have the emotional arsenal to deal with learning that another child was abused or lost; people were having their homes bombed; children were starving; another car crashed killing its occupants; or an animal was mutilated. I decided to live in the present, focus on my children and pretend the outside world wasn’t happening.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your mindset) the outside world kept happening and eventually I emerged from under my pretend cocoon and faced it head on. It wasn’t pretty.

Recently, I woke as always from my dream-ridden sleep to find that the suffering keeps going unabated. I’m not sure which is scarier – my nightmares or the real world. I learned that a teenager was killed on her way to school in New Zealand, another death in our escalating road toll. I read that the mosque victims continue to suffer. Too traumatized to work following the attack, they do not have access to the donated millions that victim support is holding onto.

There was one aspect of that news that caught my attention. Yama Nabi’s father was killed in the Christchurch mosque attacks and he is suffering. Nabi is a butcher at a slaughter house who now struggles at the sight of animal blood after seeing blood flowing down the steps of the Al Noor mosque. Yet he must go to work to pay the mortgage and feed his family. His ACC application for support was declined and victim support money which has amassed to $10.5 million remains unavailable.

The connections between the suffering at the mosque and at the slaughter house are triggering for Nabi. One thing is clear, suffering is not isolated to humans, and neither is violence. The link between suffering and violence is not always evident, because some forms of violence are regarded as justified. Like killing animals for food.

If we have things in common with animals it is not just our capacity for suffering, it is also our blood. The trauma of bloodshed causes suffering, and it is happening on a massive scale in the animal agriculture complex, a harsh reality we all to often choose to ignore.
There is another thought that came to me with my morning coffee and newsfeed. The amplification of suffering shifts with our ability to perceive it.

I recently read a book by Viktore Frankl called Man’s Search For Meaning which concerns his struggle for survival in Auschwitz. In this book Frankl talks about our attitude toward unavoidable suffering. He asks us to deliberate on what meaning we can find in unavoidable suffering. It is only through such deliberations that makes life worthwhile, for otherwise we will just give up.

The real gem in Frankl’s ideas however is the insistence he as that we must find meaning in life by experiencing good things. This refers to finding truth and beauty in nature or culture and “experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness – by loving him.”
To this we may also refer to loving a non-human animal in their uniqueness. Our bonds with other non-human animals can be some of the truest and most beautiful experiences of love any of us will ever have. They bring meaning to our lives and help us see a way through unavoidable suffering. We owe non-human animals a lot.

I care deeply about the suffering of both non-human animals and humans – many people do. Yet our understanding of suffering is anthropocentric, and rarely do we give equal weighting to what animals endure. Our focus on human victims of violence is understandable but out of proportion to the suffering of non-human others. Our human centred culture has destroyed 60% of wildlife in the last 40 years. Our industrial civilisation kills around 56 billion non-human animals every year in slaughterhouses. The scale of this suffering dwarfs the suffering of even the citizens of war-torn Syria. Yet it is not ever possible to say it without appearing callous toward human suffering.

Well I am saying it now because, as I said, I am a black sheep with my opinions.


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