Saturday, August 20, 2011

Suffering doesn't have to be human-like to be real

Wow, I wish I could speak whale -- Dory, Finding Nemo.


Finding Nemo is one of my favourite children's movies. The main reason for that is, while the animals often act in very human ways, they also act in very animal ways. It is educational, as well as entertaining.


But another reason why it is such a great movie is that it has a compelling storyline and believable characters. These are characters we can relate to and characters we can cheer for. We are pleased for Dory when she remembers things. We feel for Nemo as he gets taken from home. We want Marlin to find Nemo, but also to let Nemo go. And, if you're a big sook like me, we cry when Nemo and Marlin eventually get reunited.


But we relate to these characters and cheer for them because they are anthropomorphised. It is when they are behaving most like humans that we feel the most empathy for them.


Another reason we care so deeply for the characters in Finding Nemo is because we see their emotions. Again, this is anthropomorphising animals. A fish that is taken from his home would not feel the same emotions as a boy who was taken from his home. But in giving Nemo the same emotions as a boy, the audience can relate to him and feel sorry for him.


In a children's film, perhaps this is needed. But in the real world, do we then fail to recognise suffering unless we can imagine ourselves in the place of who or what is suffering? Do we say that suffering doesn't exist if it doesn't involve human-like pain or emotions?


And can we really say that something doesn't feel just because we don't understand the way it might feel?


As humans, we have not always treated other human beings as having the same emotions and feelings as us (especially if 'us' means white European males). It has been thought that women's feelings were not as valid as men because they were not as rational and more hysterical. In was once thought that black people did not have the same feelings as white people and therefore did not suffer in the same way. In evidence given regarding the Stolen Generation, one woman said their mothers 'weren't treated as people having feelings.'[i] Now we can sympathise with a make-believe fish. Back then, there were too many people unable to sympathise with real women and children.


I don't think that the people who had these thoughts were necessarily bad people. They just fell into the trap that we are still capable of falling into. We believe it is only feelings like ours that have any validity. We think that if suffering isn't expressed in terms we can understand, then it doesn't exist at all.


Why is it that we tend to sympathise more with dogs and horses than we do with mice? Maybe it's because many of us live with dogs and have projected our own emotions onto those animals. When a dog suffers, we imagine its suffering. I have to admit I tend to be more upset at hurts done to koalas than many other animals. Why? Because my son loves koalas. When a koala is hurt, I see that suffering through my son's eyes. And my son has that many toy koalas that, as children often do, he has projected his own feelings onto. When a koala suffers, he undoubtedly feels that suffering as his own.


But is it only our suffering (or suffering that seems like ours, suffering that we can identify with, suffering that we can recognise) that is real suffering? I would say not. Suffering should not be measured by how human-like it is. It is not only suffering which can be empathised with (or even recognised) by humans that is real.


If we could all speak whale (or dog or horse or rat or even cockroach) we might see that there are many different forms of suffering and many different ways that it is expressed. And that is not to say that we necessarily need to try and eliminate all of the different forms that suffering takes. I'm afraid that, when there's a cockroach in the house, it is not that cockroach's suffering that concerns me. But maybe we ought to realise that we are not the judges of who or what suffers and who or what doesn't.


There is a judge. God is the one who will not only judge who has suffered, but who will work to redeem that suffering and bring justice to this world.


I imagine that we express our suffering in ways very different to God. But he doesn't look on from Heaven, saying, 'Well you're not suffering the way God does, so you mustn't be suffering at all?' Instead he became incarnate in Jesus so that he could not only understand our suffering, but suffer as a human being himself.


We can't make ourselves into a fish or a donkey or a whale or a goat to see exactly how those animals suffer. But if we model ourselves on Christ, we must follow his example of identifying with the suffering of others. And others does not just mean people, but those creatures that are completely different to ourselves. And we must recognise suffering even when we don't understand it.



  1. This is a truly excellent post, Liz, and you make a very solid and needed point. Would you mind if I re-posted it sometime later on this Fall on Not One Sparrow? Ben

  2. Thank you, Ben. Yes, you can post it on Not One Sparrow. I'm very pleased that you want to do so. Liz

  3. Thank you very much, Liz, I'll be sure to let you know when it goes up, though I have a few series to get through before doing so. By the way, I was thinking of your post when I read this quote today:

    "Pain is pain, whether it is inflicted on man or on beast. ... We may pretend to what religion we please, but cruelty is atheism. We may boast of Christianity; but cruelty is infidelity. We may trust our orthodoxy; but cruelty is the worst of heresies." - Rev. Humphry Primatt, 'A Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and Sun of Cruelty to Brute Animals' (1776)

  4. That's a great quote, Ben. Thanks for sharing it. I'm going to post it up on the Australian Christian Environmental Group.