I See You. I Love You: On Wounding and Healing Among Activists, Part II
From All-Creatures.org Animal Rights Activism Articles Archive


Gracia Fay Ellwood, Editor, The Peaceable Table
September 2017

We must show compassion for ourselves: we must not minimize our own suffering nor let others minimize it, even though we know it is less than the hell the animals endure. Nor should we beat ourselves up when we make a mistake.

compassionate listening

Part I of this essay (On Wounding and Healing Among Activists, Part I) sketched the experiences of two Peace activists, “Sara” and “Faith,” each of whom underwent serious psychological trauma, Sara apparently at first hand during time spent in prison for doing civil disobedience, and Faith at second hand as she witnessed, in her childhood, the frequent verbal battering of her mother by her angry, and anxious, father. Both women serve to illustrate the soul-damage that activists can sustain in the course of their work, which needs healing if they are to live in accordance with their values.

Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD)

Some animal activists are at particular risk of STSD: one thinks of undercover workers in factory farms and slaughterhells, those who rescue animals from hoarding situations, puppy mills, natural disasters, and other sickening scenes, those who suffer police or media abuse in connection with civil disobedience, those who disrupt organized hunts, pigeon shoots, and the like, sometimes being physically attacked; those who do open rescues from factory farms; those who follow death trucks to the slaughterhells, offering food and water during stops to animals they can reach through the openings (but cannot save); those who attend auctions to rescue still-living animals from dead piles, and the like.

The terrible pain of witnessing such suffering may diminish afterwards, but it seldom goes away by itself. Support from others and self-care are crucial to the healing necessary to prevent the sufferer from causing even more harm to her/himself and others. There are well-known elements of self-care: meditation or contemplative prayer; spending time in scenes of natural beauty; exercise, such as dancing, gardening, jogging--whatever one enjoys. The person who is hurting needs sympathetic listeners, so that s/he knows she is not alone. For the severely traumatized, such elements are even more crucial, especially the support from companions, and often therapy too. In her book Aftershock, pattrice jones notes that when a severely stressed activist looks for support from a companion or relative and is rebuffed, e.g., told that things aren’t that bad, and to “just get over it”--perhaps because the story upsets the other’s cherished assumptions--the situation can become even more hurtful. Occasionally activists have even been raped or otherwise attacked by a fellow activist, which feels the ultimate betrayal. Or, after being abused by the police, activists may be described in the media as terrorists. “People cannot mourn their losses when others deny that those losses took place.” (p. 104) Aftershock offers much helpful information about finding the necessary means to heal from such anguish.

Knowledge about STSD can also help others of us in the community to respond, strongly and gently, to unhealed sufferers who, though committed to nonviolence like Sara, cannot see the harm they may be doing to fellow activists, friends, or family. Infighting in our large community is not a secret; there is much suffering and unhappiness, many complaints. Somebody is taking a totally wrong approach; some group is getting most of the donations; somebody isn’t doing her/his job, and the speaker is left doing most of the work; somebody is selling out the whole cause by his/her verbal violence. There may be much truth to the accusations, and there may also be unhealed trauma in the accusers. We must listen compassionately to both, and show that we care.

compassionate listening

Others of us may be less exposed to the worst horrors, and our pain may not reach the pitch of intensity that may cause a traumatized person to inflict verbal or physical violence against self or others; but we are nonetheless likely to be hurting seriously enough to make self-care important. There are everyday sources of pain aplenty: the slowness of the change we seek, including reverses of hard-earned gains; still-beloved relatives who won’t listen to the call to compassion, and eat flesh in front of us in restaurants or at home; newspaper advertisements picturing slabs of dead bodies, amid rapturous text; “meat” counters in supermarkets, and fellow shoppers who put the cellophane-wrapped contents on the conveyer belts next to us at checkout. We get regular online announcements of a recent exposé of some new but all-too-familiar horror, with stories and video clips and requests for signatures and donations. Petitions we can sign, judicious donations we can make, and they help in more than one way. But if your particular kind of work doesn’t require you to read the details and watch the pictures, don’t watch them, says Melanie Joy; do not injure yourself more than necessary.

Some of us do not despair about the ultimate fate of the victimized animals, being convinced that prayer can still make a difference even after their deaths. When dealing with instances of the everyday painful scenes mentioned above, one thing I do to support the spirit of the deceased animal is to repeat a line I learned from Judy Carman: “I see you. I love you.” It helps me personally that I have made extensive study of the vast evidence that human consciousness survives death, and I no longer doubt it (nor does Judy). Evidence that animal consciousnesses survive is not as abundant, but what there is has strong resemblance to the evidence for human survival, and thus is very suggestive. But for those of us who don’t know the evidence, lack the time to explore it, and operate out of the extinctionist beliefs of most educated persons in our culture, Judy’s line can still be helpful. We can take an “as-if” stance; we can say the line as-if it would help a little--or even a lot--to heal that suffering spirit. In any case, it will help us, and we too need all the help we can get.

Concretely, we must show compassion for ourselves: we must not minimize our own suffering nor let others minimize it, even though we know it is less than the hell the animals endure. Nor should we beat ourselves up when we make a mistake. Rather, we must accept the fact that we are neither perfect nor almighty, and cannot do more than part, usually only a small part, of all we would like to do. If we hurt another, we can apologize and make amends, forgive ourselves, and go on. We must take vacations from our work of mercy, not only major ones but mini-ones. Putting it aside regularly to refresh ourselves with something enjoyable--e.g., working on painting a picture, doing a jigsaw puzzle, reaching for an “escapist” book or DVD, cuddling with a Significant Other--is not a vice, it is a virtue. It shows that we love ourselves as well as our neighbors.

It is an affirmation that, despite the enormous anguish and the oceans of blood still being shed, the reason we keep on keeping on is that we affirm, in the words of William James, that ultimately “the universe is friendly.” The final word is not ignorance and cruelty and violence, but Compassion and Joy, even a Heart of Love inspiring our hearts to love.

Who knows...such an affirmation, lived out, may even make that cosmic Love a little stronger.

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