Fellow Humans

A couple of days ago I was jarred by a remark made by an acquaintance — let’s call her Mary –a woman  whose work for the animals and for the planet I respect deeply. It was at the end of the annual Fur Free Friday protest in Beverly Hills.  A group of us had planned on getting lunch at Veggie Grill in West Hollywood and I, sans car, begged a ride from her. I looked forward to continuing a conversation begun the day before, at the Vegan Thanksgiving  potluck in Rancho Park, regarding effective activism and the need to get the larger, “Mom and Pop” public involved in animal rights causes.

As we walked to her car I mentioned how I have been forced, much of the time, to take public transportation and I mentioned how I loved taking the train, the Metro Expo La Brea station just a ten minute walk from where I live. Mary responded that she loathed taking the train or any form of public transport. And why is that? I asked. “Because of all those gross people.” she replied.

I wasn’t quite sure which people she was talking about. To be sure, I have encountered some less than appealing humanoids in all my years riding buses and taking trains. Was she talking about someone like the homeless guy I encountered once on a subway train in New York whose rotten cabbage/cat piss reek practically cleared a whole car? Or the woman chugging malt liquor from the can at 7:45 in the morning on the 212 bus headed into Hollywood?

No. Mary was not talking about certain people.  She was talking about all people — or at least the majority of people who still “stuff themselves with the bodies of dead animals” (or words to that effect.) In fact, she went on, she hated the human race. If a virus were to wipe out the entire human population, she averred, she would be fine with that. Now, I have heard this sentiment expressed before and have found it not only disturbing but asinine, as I shall explain below. But I did not, perhaps naively, expect to hear it from this woman.

“Name one good thing that human beings have done on this earth!”  she demanded.

“What about all of us?” I asked, “What about all of the people who care deeply about animals and the Earth and are working to bring about change?” She replied that we were but a minority and besides, it was already too late.  We’d already reached the tipping point.  Humans had fucked things up forever.  Another person who was walking  with us to the car, an older woman I didn’t know,  readily agreed that all people were detestable and she hated them, too.

“Do you hate yourself, then?” I asked  Mary. She replied that she had no problem with dying –and that she would be perfectly fine with having her whole family perish as well –but whilst she was alive she planned to keep fighting for the animals. I turned to–or perhaps on  (my ire was up)– the other woman and posed the same question: “Since you are a human, do you hate yourself?”

“Oh, I, too, do not care if I die,” she replied  in a European accent I was unable to identify.

“That’s not the question that I asked,” I told her, trying hard to keep a prosecutorial zeal from gaining control. “Do you hate yourself??”

She conceded that, well, no, she did not hate herself.

“So you just hate everyone else, then.  Is that it?”  We had reached  the car by this point and I got in and shut up. On the drive to Veggie Grill I remained silent until  Mary wanted to continue our conversation from Thanksgiving. I took this opportunity to confront her with her anti-human stance but she merely reiterated her desire to see a virus wipe out the entire human race.  There was no human being, “not even the Dalai Lama”  whose life was worth a damn compared to the life of an animal.

“And what about all the children?” I asked, barely able to contain my repugnance for what this woman professed to believe. “All the young children I teach.  Do you want to see them perish as well?”

To which she replied, “Yes, them too. Children grow up to become vivisectors.”

Once we reached Veggie Grill, I had lost my appetite. As the two human haters waited for another human  to find parking, I took the elevator up to the ground level and then walked out to to Crescent  Heights and continued walking, down towards Santa Monica Boulevard. Away from human haters. Away from the activist crowd gathered at Veggie Grill, a crowd comprised of who knows how many others who fervently wished for a final viral solution to the human problem.

Of course, I do realize that there are many– perhaps most– in my Vegan/Animal Rights community and in the worldwide circle of advocates,who eschew such  misanthropy. Here’s what Animal Rights philosopher Tom Regan has to say in his book, Empty Cages:

With rare exceptions, ARAs [animal rights advocates] stand for love of family and country, for human rights and justice, for human freedom and equality, for compassion and mercy, for peace and tolerance, for special concern for those with special needs, for a clean, sustainable environment, for the rights of our children’s children’s children — our future generations.

I question whether most ARAs “stand for love of family and country” and it’s Hallmark- patriotic sheen but I would like to believe the rest is quite true.

Yes, human beings are capable of great cruelty, staggering mindlessness, monumental stupidity, selfishness, greed and folly.  Many people  have annoyed me, repulsed me, horrified and deeply saddened me. But there have also been people who have greatly inspired me, who have bolstered my faith in humanity, whose self-sacrifice and dedication are a wonder to behold, whose kindness and compassion have at times brought me to tears.  And I have known humans who, though not (yet) vegan, not animal rights advocates, have touched me deeply with their warmth, humor and sensitivity.

I understand the anger, the sickness-at-heart; I understand the rage. There is much that humans have done to animals and to Nature (and, I might add, to other humans) that is unconscionable and deserving of unequivocal rebuke.

But it makes me sick at heart to hear people like Mary declare such hatred for a species to which I, my family, friends and loved ones — and yes, even she–happen to belong.  And all this talk about looking forward to a virus wiping out the human race is such asinine rubbish.  Of course those like Mary are not prepared to start things off with themselves and not wait for the virus (thank goodness!) because of the important work they have left to do.  But it is fine to consign everyone else to death. Even little children who will, undoubtedly, grow up to become vivisectors.  And what of the suffering involved?  The anguish of   those who, before their own demise, have to witness their loved ones sicken and waste away. What of the pain, the terror, the horror of such a scenario? Would this, in Mary’s mind, be justice served?  Or is she planning on a quick and painless plague?

I am a human being, a deeply flawed human being.  We are all flawed to some extent.  Yes, even the beloved leaders of our Vegan/Animal Rights community (I have been privy to some stories which paint a less than glowing portrait of  the human interactions of some highly respected people ) But this does not mean they have not made positive contributions to  saving the lives of animals and to changing the hearts and minds of other human beings.  And this does not mean that there are so many others out there who are open to our message of compassion for all earthlings, who are ready to change, to become Vegan, to put their ideals into profound practice.

We cannot, we must not, conform to the false stereotype of the “people hating” animal rights extremist.  This does not mean that we must not confront the public with the truth — the horrors of factory farming, the insanity and barbarity of animal research, the depravity of the fur trade, etc. It means that we must be guided by hope, we must be always ready to take the long view, to see an arc of history that truly does bend toward justice.

And we must be open to the small epiphanies, the serendipitous discoveries that are awaiting us as long as we leave ourselves open to them. Last night, after taking part in a rousing street theater stunt against UCLA vivisection  organized by Progress For Science at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, I had time to kill before my bus arrived and so I stopped in at the bar at Buddha’s Belly on Broadway and Second for an  après (street) theater drink.

I had much to think about, much to contemplate regarding the events of the past few days.  I had been a part of a peaceful and lovely gathering of like minded folk in Rancho Park for the Vegan Thanksgiving potluck; I had been in the midst of some righteous anger directed at the purveyors of  fur in Beverly Hills; I was happy that the stunt on the promenade had gone well and that nearly thirty people had shown up.  I had felt a comradeship with these people, these dedicated activists,many of whom were young enough to be my children.

And I also was mulling over Mary’s comments.  As I sipped my Tsing Tao beer, to be followed by a sake, I scanned the others at the bar and in the dining area.  Would Mary find everyone of them gross and consignable to death?  And would I feel a true sense of kinship with any of them?  Did any of them really care about earthlings other than themselves?

We cannot, we must not, conform to the false stereotype of the “people hating” animal rights extremist.

And there I was, dressed up in my grown-up clothes, my non-wool dress jacket, dress shirt, slacks, non-leather shoes (I had been to the real theater earlier in the day). How did the others see me?  Would they see a much different person were I wearing the “Animal Liberation” tee shirt I wore to the fur protest? Most likely, yes. Dressed as I was, they had no way of knowing I was a Vegan, an Animal Rights Advocate, the creator of The Veg Monologues, fer cryin’ out loud.

And then the bartender, a  friendly young woman named Jamie, spoke to me. “Did you just come from a movie or show?” she asked.  And I told her that, no, actually, I had just come from a street theater stunt against vivisection at UCLA.  And that’s how I found out that she and her mother were both Vegan and supporters of animal rights.  As she went about her bar tending duties we talked about veganism, tofurkey, Native Foods, and how difficult it is sometimes being around people who just don’t get it. Before I left, I urged her to check out this blog.

So, Jamie, if you are reading this, it was great meeting you, fellow Vegan.  Fellow Human.

Love. Hope. Joy.

“Find A Place Inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.”

                                                                                           – Joseph Campbell

I’d like to start with a personal story, one which is adapted from one of my monologues, Keeping Hope Alive:

In September of 2006 my wife, Kendra, underwent a partial hysterectomy due to degenerating fibroid tumors. One afternoon, after she had recovered from the operation, I came home and she said, “Honey, sit down.” A pathology report  had come back and it revealed an endometrial sarcoma — a form of uterine cancer.  Kendra  handled the news much better than I.  A complete hysterectomy followed in November and then the endless rounds of chemo and surgical procedures.  But we always kept hope alive. At one point we thought we had it licked, with a PT Scan showing no detectable cancer cells.  But the cancer came back and moved up to her lungs.

On July 11, 2008, I took her to the oncologist to discuss putting her on a phase 1 clinical trial drug. However, after hearing how labored Kendra’s breathing was, he said she needed to go straight to the ER.

We were in ER most of the day and then she was put in one hospital room and then another where she was monitored and had to wear a breathing mask. Several x-rays and a CT scan had already been taken and after studying these, the resident oncologist told us that the cancer had progressed to such a point that all we could do was make her as comfortable as possible, put her on a morphine drip and wait. I can’t tell you how much that hurt, to hear there was no more hope. It felt like a sledgehammer blow to my gut.

By Friday morning it was obvious the end was near as she was unresponsive and even with oxygen her breathing became quite poor. Her mother, stepfather and I were with her when she finally stopped breathing and was at peace. She died at twelve noon on Friday the thirteenth.

A week later we had a beautiful memorial for her under a favorite bowing oak tree where we lived.

 At the hospital when the resident oncologist had broken the news to Kendra and then asked if she understood, my dear wife had raised a finger, looked at me and rasped through her oxygen mask, “One day at a time.” At the time I thought she still believed there was hope that she would get better.  I now believe it was a message for me:  all we can do is live life one day at a time.   And keep hope alive. 

 I grieved deeply over the loss of my wife, my best friend, my life partner and still do.  But I’ve also moved on.  I joined a grief support group and that helped immensely. My family has bolstered me more than I can say. 

 But it is a spirit of hope that has kept me moving forward. Maintaining hope is not dependent upon the fulfillment of expectations. It is not merely wishful thinking.  It is, indeed, essential to living every day of my life in an often uncertain world.

In conversation last night with a new friend– a bright, giddy, impassioned young woman, a fairly new vegan whose activism and commitment to the animals is in full flower and whose embrace of life  is an inspiration —  I attempted to delineate my philosophy of hope, using the above story as an example.  I then made an attempt at connecting that idea of the essential quality of hope, and the need to maintain joy, to our activism.  In our work as animal advocates we are continually faced with grim realities: ten billion animals slaughtered each year by U.S. agribusiness;  sentient beings devoid of any creature comforts, confined and tortured; a general public in the grip of an entrenched ideology which author Melanie Joy has coined carnism which causes many people to view the work we do on behalf of the animals as extremist and the eating of animals and animal products as normal, natural and necessary.

Where’s the joy in all that?

Let me share with you another quote from Joseph Campbell:

“The way to find out about happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you are really happy — not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what is called following your bliss.”

I became vegetarian, and eventually vegan, because of the logical arguments laid out by philosopher Peter Singer.  But my continuing work on behalf of the animals and veganism is an expression of love, kindness and compassion. Knowing that I am doing my small part to help end the suffering of animals fills me with happiness.  Not naïve self satisfaction or the blithe delusion that by merely “loving” animals I am making their lot any better, but the happiness that comes from being involved in real work that matters,  in a cause with a long moral arc which, I truly believe, is bending toward justice.

My advocacy work also allows me to tap into my creativity with projects such as The Veg Monologues or Vegan Street Theater. Working in collaboration with other creative and compassionate people has been a source of bliss for me, even in times when loneliness and depression seem to have temporarily derailed me.

I tend to share intimacies, to reveal myself far too readily. My attempts at playing it cool, of adopting an aloof persona are continually thwarted by an overriding need to open up, to connect, to love. But I can’t imagine a detached life.  I can’t imagine not falling in love – not just with other people, but with ideas, art, music, life itself.   I also realize, however, that the thrill of falling in love  is temporal and often something of a distraction; working wholeheartedly to bring about animal and human liberation, to alleviate suffering,  to ensure a sustainable environment, to create real change that has positive, global implications for all beings, requires a different kind of love.  It requires an expression of love that does not often see immediate results; it requires real work that is not often thrilling or romantic; it requires hope and courage that are often met with derision or apathy; it requires relinquishing personal drama in favor of tactics that are more effective in the long run.

But it does not have to be devoid of joy. I feel a profound sense of joy in being part of a cause that is so much larger than my own personal concerns. I feel joyful to have real meaning in my life.  I feel joy in being able to feel compassionate, empathetic, even grief stricken.  Those feelings tell me that I’m alive, not just existing but fully sentient and aware, connected to Life and all its vicissitudes.  And the work continues.

–for Kara, thanks for the inspiration!