The Consolation of Animals

August 18, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert

The great romantic poet, William Wordsworth, once wrote,

The World is too much with us, late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away.”

Wordsworth often wrote about the relationship between the inner life of people and the outward life of the world of nature. He believed deeply that we must maintain a sensitivity to the beauty and power of nature for the sake of our own spiritual well-being. I thought about those opening lines, “the world is too much with us” over recent weeks as I encountered so many who have been internalizing the pain of the news in these days. There is clearly a heaviness, a weariness, a sorrow that so many have been carrying. And, of course, there is the fear, the anger, the anxiety that permeates so many public places now in the wake of the most recent shootings as well as the large-scale immigration raid in Mississippi which led to the separation of many children from their parents. Many watched with anguish the tears of these children, perhaps forever scarred, without knowing how to respond. I’d like to believe that we have reached a point where the epidemic of gun violence in our nation as well as the separation of children from their parents are not partisan political issues, but in fact, are human rights concerns, public health and public safety concerns. However any of us may feel about the particular policies, I pray that we are joined in our sympathy and compassion for those who are suffering. Let us pray, Lord of all mercy and compassion, be with us in these days of sorrow and bewilderment; help guide us and our nation’s leaders; help our hearts to be open to care for those who are grieving and inspire us to find solutions to protect our children, protect one another and to walk as a community of hope and empowerment.

We look ahead this week to the Blessing of the Animals which will be held on Wednesday morning. Our theme for today is about the companionship, the consolation, and the compassion that our animal friends have brought to our lives. I recognize that not all in this community have the devotion and love of an animal in your life, but I know that this community has a large number of folks who care about our natural world and especially animals in a very special way. They can often be our teachers, especially in the ways of unconditional love, patience and empathy. We have witnessed special companions who have an innate sense of when we needed their presence, their comfort, their care.

In the book, Random Acts of Kindness by Animals, the author, Stephanie LaLand shares a number of wonderful stories of animals who demonstrated keen empathy, kindness and love to one another, to people with whom they didn’t even have a relationship, and of course, to those with whom they share their days. Through these stories, the author explains that she has come to understand deeply that “we are all sentient and conscious beings, each holding within us that little spark of the divine. When we discover a little more goodness in others, we somehow discover more of it in ourselves as well.”

I recall the final days of my dear Uncle Bill when he had been moved to hospice care. He was always a dog lover and had a special relationship with the beautiful black lab of his grandson and his wife. They brought their sweet dog to visit and I had the privilege of being with all of them in those final hours of his life. Their dog crawled right up on the bed and laid his head on my uncle’s chest and stayed with him as he drew his last breaths. It was a very touching scene.

Compassion means to feel with another and it is not exclusive to us as human beings. There are countless stories where animals have demonstrated empathy that seems to go beyond just instinctual reaction. In the summer of 1996 in the Brookfield Zoo outside of Chicago, spectators witnessed with shock as a three-year old boy fell twenty-four feet into the gorilla compound, striking his head on the concrete. As the crowd watched in fear, one of the gorillas approached the boy. Her name was Binti-Jua, a mother gorilla who carried her own infant on her back. Everyone watched with anxiety because they were too far away to intervene should any harm come to the child. Instead, the gorilla lifted the boy up, cradled him in her arms and while keeping the other gorillas away, she gently carried him to a door at the side of the compound where the zookeepers could come to get him. This was all videotaped by one of the spectators and perhaps you have seen the footage? Some wondered whether she had responded out of maternal instinct; however, a similar story had happened a decade earlier when a male gorilla gently stroked the head of a child who had also fallen into a compound.

We all know of Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest” which theorizes that life on earth is a desperate contest to kill or be killed, eat or be eaten; however, the naturalist Petr Kroptkin, a Russian prince and Darwin’s contemporary, went to Siberia to learn about animal behavior. There, he observed that when the environment was adversarial, animals learned to work together for survival. The wolves, who had to face the extreme cold and snow, learned to hunt together and build cooperative social structures. I certainly recognize that the animal world has its own set of rules and that animals, out of their need to survive, do hunt and prey upon those who are weaker. It’s hard to watch similar behavior within humanity…cruelty, bullying, etc…is still very much a part of how some people operate, despite how much we may wish to believe we are more evolved or superior to our animal brethren.

Another story that stood out to me in Random Acts of Kindness was shared by a woman from her days growing up on a farm years before. She told about these two dogs, Brownie and Spotty who were neighbors and loved meet up and play with each other every day. One night Brownie’s family realized that he had not returned home. At first, they weren’t too worried because he had disappeared before and they assumed he was just out roaming so they didn’t look for him. By the next week, he was still missing. The neighbor’s dog, Spotty, showed up at their house by himself, barking and whining and calling attention to himself. Finally, the father of Brownie’s family decided to follow the frantic Spotty as he kept barking and looking back, encouraging him to follow. He led the man to a spot nearly a half mile from their house where he found their beloved dog, Brownie, alive with one of his legs crushed in a trap. Horrified, the father felt awful that he had not paid attention earlier. The dog Spotty had done more than just lead Brownie’s human to his trapped friend. In a circle around the injured dog, the father found bones and table scraps which were later identified as the remains of every meal Spotty had been fed over the week. Spotty had been visiting Brownie, sharing food and companionship to keep his spirits up. The good news is that Brownie’s leg was treated by a vet and he recovered.

We might think that some of this empathetic behavior is perhaps exclusive to mammals, but the author shares stories of turtles and seagulls and other animals who demonstrate a level of caring that is impressive.

In our Insert today, I share words taken from a recent document called the Charter for Compassion which invites communities around the world to join together and visualize a world where peace and compassion may bring a future of which so many of us dream. They speak of research which reveals that empathy is found in human DNA. The document invites people to affirm the belief that the practice of compassion is the path to peace and the antidote to fear and insecurity, violence and suffering, isolation and pain, the fracturing of community and the polarization of society. It continues, Compassion increases and strengthens the sense of community and our common humanity through the ethic of reciprocity, the treating of others in ways we wish to be treated ourselves and likewise to not treat others in ways we do not wish to be treated; The idea of what we call the Golden Rule is found in all of the world’s religions and Jesus in the reading from Matthew’s Gospel takes it even further by saying, ‘whenever you did it to the least, you did it to me.”

God knows that we need to sow the seeds of compassion whenever and wherever we can. This week, perhaps we may look to our beloved animal friends for comfort in these hard days. We may look to them and to the compassionate people in our lives to remind us of that value in our own lives and to inspire us to live boldly compassionate lives in the days ahead.