As a by-product of further ruminations about the HSUS/UEP deal, I started thinking (as I often do) about the concept of hope. Specifically, I began to wonder if the perceived need for hope is, in part, what has led many AR activists to think this deal is a good thing. And so, while I have no wish to spend further time and energy on the deal itself, as plenty of other folks are saying what needs to be said and I have said what I need to say for the moment, I do think it’s worth thinking about hope, the role it plays in our approaches to activism, and whether or not it really is a necessary element of the work we do (or, for that matter, necessary for us to have, in general, in order to live a happy life).
I will preface this by saying I have little hope. I’ve said this before a million times but it bears repeating, mostly because I’m generally not believed when I say that. Folks rush to assure me that I should have hope; that there is hope; that humans, as we know ourselves to be, will get our collective act together and live right upon this planet; so on and so forth. I used to think they were trying to console me, just as they used to do when I would mention that I was an atheist; so many people simply can’t fathom how one can live, happily, in the absence of either deity or hope. Now I believe they are trying to console themselves.
They cannot comprehend an existence — a happy existence — without having grander hopes for the future. One day humans will live in peace with everyone else. One day we will all embrace a plant-based diet, we will transport ourselves without making everyone else sick, we will use only renewable items to make our clothing and shelter, so on and so forth. After all, how can being an activist be manageable over the long run in the absence of hope for the future? How can you keep going, keep striving for change, persevere in efforts to make the world a better place for animals, if you don’t have hope that it ever will, not in your lifetime and not until homo sapiens have been eliminated from this planet? They need to feel hopeful, I feel, because otherwise the despair, the pain, is simply too great to live with. It’s not melodrama. It’s the way it is.
Yet having hope (or believing in deity, for that matter) is not the only way to live happily on this planet. I am living proof. Well, I am not always happy for sure. I have never been what one could call a happy person. But I’m as happy as anyone with my personal history, doing this kind of work, can be. And so, I am living proof that one can live a reasonably happy life without having hopes for the future.
Now, I still have “mini-hopes” for my own personal sorts of plans. I hope to write and publish more poems; I hope to live by the ocean again some day; I hope to visit my sister in New York next month. These things are the insignificant items that comprise most of our lives, and I, like many, hop from one hope to the next, and this way I get through the harder parts of my life. And I have, of course, mini-hopes regarding my work with animals. I hope that the chickens and cows (and others) we rescue will have happy, healthy lives. I hope that the outreach we do will convince folks to go vegan. I hope that these words are read by someone who finishes the blog, jumps up, and says I need to do something for animals today! I have those hopes, and they are sustaining.
However, I lack the grander hope, the large-scale hope, that humans — our version of humans, homo sapiens sapiens — will ever live in peace with everyone else; all of us eating a plant-based diet, voluntarily restricting our numbers so that we don’t overrun this planet, and otherwise acting ethically and with compassion. My hope rests on our eventual extinction and replacement by a new model (in my wildest dreams, we become Neanderthal once more, although I know that’s unlikely). So actually — I guess that is a hope after all. But my point is still intact (I hope).
It was hard to get to this point. When the catharsis of animal liberation blew up in my brain, I was a mess. I lost friends, I felt like I was just going through the motions of my previous life, and all I knew is that I would have to do SOMETHING to handle this despair. These were the most acute feelings I’d ever felt about something unrelated to my own traumas, even though previously, I had done years of rape crisis work, work with sexual abuse survivors, and work with adults with serious mental illness and substance abuse issues. But this was different. It was just this side of bearable most days, and unbearable the others. And the more I learned, the more I saw no way we could ever get from here –where we are now, in relation to other animals on this planet — to there, where we have to be if we want to be halfway decent creatures. Hell, if we can’t even stop raping our own children, how can we get people to stop eating the wings of animals we’ve considered to be prey for thousands of years? Seriously.
Seeing no answer to that, but believing, still, that I had to DO SOMETHING, over the course of a couple of years I learned to live without hope. This is not as bleak or as oh poor Miriam-ish as it sounds. It’s a statement of fact. It can be done. And it doesn’t have to prevent me from doing what I can to struggle against what I see as basically insurmountable odds, saving those I can save through sanctuary work, trying to save others through outreach work (which is always limited by our resources), and otherwise living as best I can.
Moreover, my lack of hope doesn’t mean that I don’t think that individual humans can change; I know they can. I did, after all, and I was one of those holdouts who ate veal, for crying out loud. Nevertheless, I still do harm in this world, as we all do. Anyone who eats something wrapped in plastic, moves about in a machine powered with fossil fuels (whether or not they are driving said machine), or does a million other human-contrived things is doing harm. That’s about all of us. So, we do our best to minimize the harm we cause, and again, there are many of us our there doing that.
But it will take a critical mass of people to eradicate literally thousands of years of pastoralism and I do not have hope that this will happen before the ecosystems of the world have collapsed en masse. That will lead to a rebirth, though — again, I hope.
How can I keep going? More importantly, why do I keep going? And how can I reconcile my efforts to save those lives that we can save at the sanctuary, and my efforts to encourage others to eschew violence against animals, with this lack of hope?
My answer is simple. I don’t deserve the wonderful benefits I receive from living in this world — beauty around me, the privilege to enjoy it without an undue amount of outside control over my movements, if I don’t fight to ensure that everyone else has the same privilege. It’s plain and simple. I remember clearly a conversation I had with one of my students when I was still teaching (I taught high school English for a few years). The class had turned to a discussion of Why Ms. Jones Was Vegan, and one young woman asked me why I didn’t kill myself since that would mean one less human on the planet doing harm (she said it in a tone that didn’t make it sound as obnoxious as it does here).
I answered seriously that I would kill myself if I believed that the sum total of good done by that action would outweigh what I could do while I was still alive. And she understood. And that’s what keeps me going.
That, and watching Brooklyn the cat roll around in dirt; that, and seeing the moon rise blood-red over the chicken yards at night, seeing the light cast over the chickens sleeping in the trees; that and hearing Snowball, the very old and very insistent cow, moo for food every couple of hours. And trashy science fiction novels. And Dexter. And holding Aram at night before we sleep.
Those things supply enough fuel to keep me going. I’m not the only one, either, I suspect; I am sure all of us can’t be out there doing what we do, knowing what we know, reading and seeing the things we do, and still believing there’s a reasonable chance that homo sapiens sapiens, as a species, will snap into shape. I think we all just manage as best we can.
I urge us all, though, to be sure that our need for hope — our perceived need for it, I should say — doesn’t cloud our ability to see the truth. That’s all. When that happens, we are doing no one a service — especially not the animals, but ourselves as well.