“The physical world is spiritual,” said British philosopher Alan Watts, “because it is impermanent.”
The Buddhists remind us that without some form spiritual discipline or community to remind us of the fleeting nature of all things, we suffer a lot.
As Van Morrison once sang: “How can we not be attached? After all, we’re only human.”
But I propose that there is another task we have in this mortal realm that is even more difficult than accepting change: Human beings are meant to love each other. While it’s fairly easy to find individuals for whom we feel affection, loyalty, and affinity, what of humanity itself?
Every day in my mailbox, on Facebook, in my e-mail box, in my news feed, in documentary films, and on the streets, I see the horrible things human beings do not only to each other, but to animals. A leopard is caged and set on fire in India, a boy kicks a cat to death for fun, ducks are force-fed to the point of liver explosion, foxes caught in snares chew off their own feet, hotels carve up endangered sharks at banquets, horses and donkeys are starved and whipped even as the packed carts they pull have tipped over, whales suffocate on plastic, orangutans on palm oil plantations burn to death when their habitats are lit on fire or sold to cretins who drug them and train them to perform in X-rated entertainment shows. Farmers rip calves away from their distressed mother cows and chain them in crates. All of this for what? Creamier sandwich spreads? The joy of ice cream? To satisfy our frustration, boredom, our love of glamor, our constant, driving emptiness?
Here is another philosophical challenge: How are people whose hearts aren’t made of marble supposed to witness these things on a daily basis and not believe that people are fundamentally awful?
To put it another way, how did Anne Frank do it?
When people die, when friendships end, I am devastated. Yet although I mourn these individual losses, I wonder how much I will, when it’s time for me to die, miss “the world.” This maybe is akin to the old joke, “I love people! It’s humanity I can’t stand.”
The impermanence of life is a blessing as well as a burden. Suffering, both human and animal, is ultimately temporary. But why does it feel so endless? If I didn’t believe that animal souls go on to another, better world I don’t know how I would deal with the myriad cruelties we as a species inflict on other creatures both actively and passively. This is not a fairy tale I tell myself in order not to go insane, but a deeply held belief. The more I look at animals, the more I see how evolved they are in ways we rarely acknowledge, I understand how deserving and ready they are to go on to a higher plane when their long, painful work here–with us–is finally done.