Friday, January 11, 2013

growing Compassion

When I was a girl, about 12, I remember standing at the bus stop, waiting for the school bus with my sister, and stamping on the ants.

"Stop!" she said. "What did those ants do to you?"

Of course the ants had done nothing, but there was a quiet thrill in me, to have so much power. Tiny ants; what was the point of them?

A couple of years later, a friend of mine at his birthday party put a ring of some kind of gasoline around a group of ants on the sidewalk. Then he lit it on fire. It was a small fire, but all his friends and I crowded around to see the ants in a panic, feeling the wall of heat, with nowhere to go, no protection, no possibility of escape.

I don't remember feeling anything much other than perhaps this wasn't a fair fight. This was a step up from stamping. I don't remember watching for long. I think, at some point, I walked away. At least, my 40-plus-year-old self hopes I did.

Then my sister became vegetarian. I was fourteen. Being vegetarian in the 80's was very different to today. We would go out to dinner and the waiter would be stumped, totally unable to fathom what my sister could eat. My relatives would have big family dinners and serve ham salad, telling my sister she could just pick out the meat. As a university student, I would eat big t-bone steaks in front of her at family get togethers.

I ate meat without a thought. I killed spiders without a thought. I felt distant from other animals, and to be perfectly honest, I think I felt better than them. I remember thinking, "It's okay to eat chickens, because they are stupid." (Not actually true, it turns out). I felt the same about fish. I was a bit wobblier thinking about cows as they were so gentle and placid-looking. As for pigs, rumour had it they were smart, but I put that out of my mind to eat them.

My sister, in the meantime, remained vegetarian, never wavering, raising her kids as vegetarians, and quietly, slowly influencing me with her steadfast refusal to eat meat.

Some years ago, we had a problem with some mice. It was an infestation; a bunch of mice had found our house and decided to move in. We could hear them, scrabbling about contentedly in the walls, and sometimes popping, darting, dashing into our house to look for grub. We were told to bait them, so that's what we did. One day soon after, I remember finding a sick, scared mouse in our house. It could hardly move. I can't write or describe what I did to dispose of that mouse, but I will never forget it. That mouse was terrified. It felt shocking to kill it.

By this time, I was the mother of two kids as well as the carer of a dog, a cat, chickens, fish, birds. I cuddled my cat, walked and talked with my dog, watched as our two birds tried to have babies. The chickens would run to us when we dug in the garden, looking for worms. The hens shouted to let us, anyone, know they'd just! laid! an egg! My kids and I adored our pets.

Then about four years ago, I saw a friend's cat get run over.

I saw the whole thing from beginning to end. And I thought: I can't do this any more. Separate myself.

I went vegetarian then. I lasted about nine months. But no-one else went with me, and I'd just been diagnosed as wheat intolerant, and I couldn't think of what to eat. It seemed suddenly so hard. So I returned to eating meat, but I had to consciously switch off my mind when I went to buy steak or sausages or chicken at the shops, when I faced the shelves and fridges filled with meat. Switch off, don't think, don't think. Once it was at home, it became just another food, in its packet. It was easier to eat when it was just stuff in a packet. Nothing more.

Three years ago, around February, we went on a camping trip, to sand fly territory. Those sand flies were crazy. They'd bite you the minute they saw you, no introductions, no hovering about just to say hello. My son was really, really scared of them. On our last day, we were driving away from the camp site, and a sand fly came in through the window. There was shouting and panic.

We pulled over the car and I grabbed a tissue box and thwack! I got that fly. Job done. I turned back to face the front. My husband began to drive. I heard a sound and looked over to see my son and he was crying so hard. Face collapsed, weeping.

Why? I asked.

Because, because…

Oh, sweetheart. Because I killed the sand fly?

Yes, Mum. Yes.

That's when I realised how deep compassion could go.

Four months later we became vegetarian. A year and a half after that, we became vegan.

And our compassion, our "sympathetic concern for the suffering of others," has grown and grown and grown.

We have read, seen, discussed, learned so much. We are more aware these days, not just of animal welfare issues, but of global and environmental, political and human rights issues. We talk about everything, and our eyes are wide, wide open.

It's like we opened some door, and in came this sense of the World, all around. Our "Selves" stopped mattering so much. Now we talk of giving more, not needing as much, of wanting to speak out about the things we care about, making a difference, small or large. We talk of being the change we want to see in the world. We try, daily, to BE the change.

This might all have happened whether we became vegan or not. I know some extraordinarily compassionate people who eat animal products. I know people who are mindful and seeking to make positive changes in the world who also hold barbeques and eat chicken curry.

For us though, our choice to become a vegetarian family, and then vegans, was our door to compassion, opening.

And it's so bright and clear in here!

Sometimes it's a bit too bright, too clear. Sometimes there's too much knowledge, because once you look…you see that real suffering is all around.

But for us, whatever sadness that knowledge brings,

is countered with hopeful, positive acts.

Like my husband removing, the other night (and over the course of two more nights) more than 30 teeny tiny baby spiders from our house.

Spider by spider by spider…!

And my son learning to cook tofu scramble this week, making breakfast for himself and his dad…

And my husband (not a pet lover) speaking to the dog and cats with a whole new voice, a whole new language…

And all of us sitting and smiling over dinners that taste so very, very Good.

Peace and love and hope coming out to you all! 

I hope you feel it, because it's big and growing,
and there's so much to share. 


  1. I loved reading your post Helena. I feel the love and oh so much compassion. Keilee and I talk about this so much. We watched Earthlings on the computer. Well we tried to watch it, I was seriously sobbing not even half way in. So why do we still eat meat? I don't know..I honestly don't know. Parts of me want to adapt this so badly, but we don't. Maybe 2013 is the year? Lovely post my friend...

    1. Karen, the fact you watched Earthlings is huge—that is a confronting movie, and once you've seen it, you are changed, even if your day-to-day decisions seem the same. I think making huge changes (which are actually not that huge once you start) can seem impossible…until you begin. I think small acts, small shifts are possible. Easing into a different life can happen through exploring a single recipe, reading one book, choosing one alternative meal or item from the supermarket, and then, and then, and then…? Beautiful things happen with the simplest of steps. :)

      Thank you so much for stopping by and for your thoughtful words, Karen. It's always so lovely to see you.


I love hearing from you! Thank you for your heartfelt, thoughtful responses—they lift me, and give me light.