“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them.”—George Bernard Shaw
I was driving home when I saw a dead deer lying in the grass on the side of the road. Oklahoma City covers a lot of ground with enough room to be the “home” of many unwillingly civilized animals. This deer was not the first I had seen along city streets. But driving by I thought I saw a bullet hole in this deer’s head. What monster would shoot a young deer in the city? I drove back to see if that was what happened. I was relieved that the deer had not been shot, but had only been killed by a car.1 Without really knowing why, I took a photograph of the deer’s almost unblemished body.
I called Animal Control in the OKC Animal Welfare department to tell them about the dead deer, which they said they would pick up. (The department also rescues live animals in need.) The next day when I drove by, the deer’s body had been removed, leaving not even a noticeable drop of blood, as though she had never been killed. The grass was undisturbed. Out of sight—out of mind, right?
But should that make me feel more relieved—and indifferent—to the deer’s death? Everything dies. Is incidental destruction of life less evil than if it is done with malice? In any event, a dead deer beside the road demands some attention, even if given involuntarily. It’s fairly large and a relatively unusual sight in town. Also, deer is a much romanticized animal for many people. What about the more frequently seen traffic victims, such as dead skunks, turtles, raccoons, snakes, birds, and squirrels? Do we feel less disturbed, more indifferent to their deaths? Or do we recognize that all life should be protected, regardless of its relative size or popular appeal? My daughter, Kerri, has displayed an “I brake for squirrels” bumper sticker on her car for years.
Still, the dead deer had a special relevance for me. A few months earlier, driving home along a more rural road in the same part of town, a young buck leaped out in front of my car from a wooded deer crossing. I stopped. He stood perfectly still a few feet in front of my car, staring at me as though asking, “Now what?” I noticed that he had a companion who had already jumped the fence across the street into the next field, also staring at me.
The posted speed limit at the deer crossing was 30mph. Fortunately, I had actually been driving about 30 miles per hour; otherwise, the meeting with this deer would have ended more like it did for my dead deer. I now routinely slow down for deer crossings. I sometimes worry, though, that a driver approaching me from behind may get angry about my life-respecting slower speed. (Maybe I need a bumper sticker that reads, “I brake for life.”)
It is less painful for us to be indifferent to suffering than to care, especially suffering we feel helpless to do anything about. People who cannot tolerate feelings of helplessness might first react with righteous anger—which immediately makes us feel stronger—but later lapse into a chronic indifference.2
Thinking about the dead deer’s body having been quickly removed from the roadside, it occurred to me how much of our society’s resources are dedicated to keeping us painlessly indifferent to—or ignorant of—suffering (as Siddhartha’s father tried to keep Siddhartha).
A soothsayer predicted that prince Siddhartha would grow up to be a great universal monarch or a spiritually awakened one, a buddha. His father wanted his son to be the world’s greatest king. The father tried to keep the knowledge of suffering from Siddhartha for fear it would lead him toward the spiritual path. The father failed and Siddhartha became the Buddha,3 a great spiritual teacher.
Even in the situations in which we are not kept ignorant of suffering, we are generally not offered lessons to become skillful healers of that suffering. Our media, friends, and authorities convince us to stay very angry or afraid about the many sufferings we’re constantly told about in the news—until we give up believing in the possibility of a better, more spiritually meaningful world. The result is essentially the same for us as it was meant by his father to be for Siddhartha: to stay materially focused and ignorant of our spiritual potential. In this state of mind we are easily manipulated by capitalist, nationalist, and religious unenlightened elites.
Resources to eliminate opportunities to feel compassion (“to suffer with”) are much more available in our culture than are opportunities to learn skills to heal the suffering of animals, people, and the earth. We are left with either unbearable feelings of guilt or a delusional state of denial regarding our place in the world.
And there isn’t much encouragement in our society to even “slow down” for living things. There is, however, much political, economic, and social noise to keep us distracted from what we’re giving up for the privilege of our efficiently contrived indifference:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”4 A mind indifferent to the suffering of others is good for business. It is also good for despots and demagogues. It is not thinkable for a Human being.
- We say someone or something was killed by a car. This common language supports my belief that our culture strives to make us more indifferent to the suffering we cause. After all, the car wouldn’t have killed the deer if it hadn’t had a driver. This argument can be expanded to implications for civilization in general leading to an overwhelming sense of guilt and impotency. This is why the new mammalian age of technology we are currently living through is so hard on us in ways we struggle to understand. Technological advances (such as cars) that we think we should be thankful for also take away our connection to nature and the agency we gain from making things with our own hands. We will feel ill at ease until we can move through this challenging period in our cultural evolution into the Human age, when we experience our connection to all living creatures and our agency in reducing suffering for all.
- Nayeri, D. (2020). Everything sad is untrue (a true story). Montclair, NJ: Levine Querido. “There’s a poem about a kid named Roland who is walking from one country to another, and he’s scared….
“[H]e sees a stiff blind horse and thinks it’s the saddest thing he’s ever seen. But he doesn’t know what to do to help him. He can’t just leave it there in the bloody field. But he doesn’t have a way to help either…. Suddenly he starts to talk himself into caring less about it. Little by little, to make sure his heart doesn’t break, he makes himself immune to the pain of the horse…. Then he says, ‘He must be wicked to deserve such pain.’
- [This article notes that the Buddha’s death was caused by food poisoning. His death occurred inadvertently from poorly prepared food given to him as a gift offering. Is inadvertent death caused by good intentions qualitatively different than inadvertent death caused by indifferent intentions?].
- Ratcliff, S. (2016). Elie Wiesel 1928–2016, Romanian-born American writer in U.S. News and World Report 27 October 1986. Oxford Essential Quotations (4 ed.). Oxford University Press copyright 2021. All rights reserved. [Of course, engaged activism as an antidote to indifference may not be expressed spiritually from the quadrune mind perspective, which would require an attitude of universal love beyond the “calling”].