Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Compassion Across Species

How do we share in the suffering of others? Can we?

At seven in the morning hundreds of blackbirds and several dozen crows forage on the grass in the field I walk and jog around for exercise. I’ve gotten to know their ways, a bit. Glossy black male Brewer’s blackbirds hop, cock their tails up, or send them straight back. Some drop their wings as in courting displays although nesting season is well past. The brownish females, dark-eyed, fluff up as round as English robins; at other times they affect a sleeker look. Both drink from the sides of their bills from the shallow puddles on the track.

Several of the blackbirds and one crow stand out as individuals, but only because of their deformities. One black bird has no left foot; another, a foot turned under, as does the crow. They excite my compassion, but then I wonder: Is my pity proportionate or symmetrical to their experience of their deformity? None show any awareness of their “handicap.” They hop just the same, balanced on one leg, as they forage with the others. No mobbing or harassing of them by the “normal” birds occurs.

Walt Whitman writes: “I think I could turn and live with animals . . . They do not sweat and whine about their condition, . . . Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth” (“Song of Myself,” Section 32). He has mammals in mind more than birds, here, but my blackbirds do not seem unhappy, either. If “compassion“ means to “share the suffering of another,” as my dictionary has it, what’s to share if the birds seem not to suffer? And yet, they evoke feelings of compassion in me.

"I don't care if you need four-and-twenty blackbirds, I'm not going into that pie!? (photo by

How’s this for anthropomorphic: “I don’t care how much you need four-and-twenty blackbirds, I’m not climbing into that pie!” (Brewer’s Blackbird photos by Eric Sonstroem)

This disjunction between my feelings and the apparent lack of suffering in these birds, the subjects of my observation, raises a larger problem, both philosophical and ethical. How can we know what another feels? Must we infer from objective evidence only? Or may we draw on our intuition of likeness in another? Many do, including vegetarians, pet owners, dog trainers, cat keepers, naturalists. Interestingly, however, so do many hunters and fishers. Ethologists like Tinbergen seemed to share understandings with herring gulls, even wasps; von Frisch, with bees; Lorenz, with geese and jackdaws.

I spent my undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota amid logical positivists, students of language and symbols who left no room in the world for such “sentimental” or anthropomorphic projecting of our human subjectivity, either “down” into animals or “up” into gods. And literature’s “new critics” taught me to beware of any hint of what they termed “pathetic fallacy” in verse or prose, that is, the imputing of human emotions to animals, landscapes, weather.

It now seems sad to me that anyone would feel disallowed from sympathy across chasms between one and another, themselves and creatures, themselves and forests, themselves and creation. To throw out the human richness of sympathy with others, of compassion for others, just because of some of the sappier excesses of certain romantic and Victorian painters or poets is to “throw out the baby with the bath water,” as a slice of folk wisdom warns.

We are birds. We are grass.We are human beings. (photo of Snow Goose preening by devra)

We are birds. We are grass. We are human beings. (photo of Snow Goose preening by devra)

Metaphor is our deepest human way of thinking and knowing, as Gregory Bateson was fond of saying. Birds are us, Mutatis mutandis, “with those things having been changed which need to be changed.” We allow for obvious differences while we also live and breathe metaphor. We are as grass (Psalms 103:15). Or like wolves (Lois Crisler), or Coyote (Ursula Le Guin), or Balinese chickens (Alice Walker). Or the Great Salt Lake (Terry Tempest Williams) or ocean (Rachel Carson). We are human beings.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>