How to avoid ‘burning out’ in animal rights activism
Burnout Among Animal Activists
by Stephen Kaufman, MD
There has been recent discussion about "burnout," related to activists' frustration as they often fail to achieve material gains for nonhumans. Much of my reading and thinking the past few years has been directed towards this problem. I offer some thoughts, which hopefully will not demonstrate that my time has been wasted. I endeavor to show that embracing animal liberation can lead, ultimately, towards a kind of spiritual liberation that is positive, uplifting, and empowering.
Let me begin with some general observations and a little background. It is striking that anxiety and depression are so widespread in this land of plenty. There is a widespread faith that "if I only had a little more then I would be happy," yet it does not appear that the "haves" are any less anxious and depressed than the "have nots." Indeed, Americans have far more material wealth now than a few decades past, and malaise seems, if anything, on the rise. What is lacking, according to much great literature (see especially Tolstoy and Dostoyevski), philosophy, and anthropology, is a sense of spiritual connection that gives one's life meaning that transcends one's brief stint on earth. Living only for oneself may lead to momentary sensual pleasures and perhaps brief periods of glory, but this does not appear sufficient to satisfy the human soul (or, if you prefer, psyche). If one defines human existence like Hamlet as "strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more," then the struggles, setbacks, and discomforts of human life hardly seem worth the brief pleasures.
What is this "sense of spiritual connection"? It is a sense of being connected to what I like to call, somewhat descriptively , the Cosmic Creative Process (see below), and what most people call God. (Atheists out there--don't tune out, at least not yet.) It is a sense that we are important to the workings of the Universe, that our lives matter, that our choices make a difference for good or evil. Even most atheists I know have a conviction that their sense of right and wrong is firmly grounded. Where does this come from, if not from a faith that there really is such a thing as right and wrong? For, if right and wrong are merely human constructions, then an individual's morality is little more than a set of aesthetic judgments. We might then each have our own esthetic notion of how we would like things to be and call it morality, but it would be inappropriate to impose our esthetic sensibilities on other people. Consequently, it seems to me that those who reject the possibility of an absolute right and wrong, of a morality independent of human thought, of some kind of "good" in the Universe, have no fundamental moral force if they encourage other people to change their behavior. We do not need certainty that there is absolute right and wrong, only faith that it might exist and that we have some means of ascertaining it.
I have called the hypothesized source of this morality the Cosmic Creative Process. I prefer this term to "God," a name that is understood so differently throughout our culture. To many Americans, "God" evokes an image of an elderly, bearded, European male, which is not what I have in mind at all. I am referring to the process--admittedly very ill-defined, because of the limitations of human understanding--responsible for the Universe's existence and creativity and our own, individual existence. There clearly is some kind of existence. Even if one rejects materialism and suggests that there is only mind, then mind exists. Creativity is less obvious. My case for the existence of creativity rests largely on the observation that there is consciousness. Human (and, to the best of our knowledge, nonhuman) consciousness cannot be explained by materialism. Physicists informs us that things are made of atoms, but atoms do not explain consciousness. I suggest that the existence of a Cosmic Creative Process is the best hypothesis to explain consciousness. Furthermore, the Cosmic Creative Process seems to me the best explanation for our own, individual sense of self. What gives each of us a sense of identity totally separate from other people, a sense of identity that persists throughout one's life? It is hard to imagine that our own, individual senses of identity are just accidents of a material Universe. Whether the hypothesized Cosmic Creative Process is continuing its creativity, or ceased with the Universe's creation, is difficult to assess. Whether the creativity was past or is also ongoing, the Cosmic Creative Process is what has made things "good," and gives a moral dimension to the Universe.
Now, I am not saying that we must have absolute conviction in a Cosmic Creative Process' existence. Rather, I am arguing that faith in a Cosmic Creative Process (or whatever you choose to call the Divine) is necessary for establishing a universal system of morality, and it is reasonable to have such a faith.
Empirically, we find that belief in some kind of divine being(s) or force(s) is nearly universal. Further, we find that humans tend to seek connection to their own notions of the Divine, and this generally includes a sense of connection to the products or components of the Divine--i.e., other humans, other animals, and nature in general. Why do humans need a sense of connection to the Cosmic Creative Process? Without the lengthy elaboration this question invites, I will briefly relate three perspectives--the first two anthropological and psychological and the third theological--that, I think, offer insights. Ernest Becker has articulated well the dilemma that humans, like all animals, innately fear death, but, unlike other animals, they are aware of their vulnerability to death at any moment and the inevitability of their ultimately demise. Fear of death, he argues, is largely responsible for human culture, of which religion generally plays a central role. Religion accords humans a much-needed sense of cosmic importance, which engenders a belief that believers will transcend their mundane existence and attain some kind of immortality.
Second, humans are products of nature. Our senses and even our kind of consciousness evolved to deal with the challenges of survival in a natural world, filled with challenges and opportunities raised by other humans, non-human animals, and the environment. If we find ourselves alienated from other living beings and nature in general, we become disconnected to our creative ground of being. Our culture has encouraged people to taken an exploitative and destructive attitude towards nonhuman existence (and much human existence as well), and this has left people feeling alone in the Universe, a loneliness the human psyche (terrified, as it is, by the specter of death) cannot stand.
Third, as Kierkegaard has argued, we must take a "leap of faith" in order to lead a fully human life. If we rely solely on our rationality and direct human experience, we will not find a foundation for a sense of purpose, meaning, and direction in life. To my understanding, this "leap of faith" involves believing that the source of consciousness has given all of us a "divine spark" that illuminates, however dimly, a notion of the will of the Divine. This, I think, is what the Hebrews had in mind when they described humankind as made in the "image of God."
Why have humans chosen the spiritually self-destructive path of alienation from nature? In the short term, this approach has seemed reasonable, because it has been an impetus and a justification for technological developments that have eased human existence considerably (at least for those in power). Modern technology has provided powerful and effective tools for assisting in some of our greatest immediate concerns--untimely death (particularly of children), pain, and pursuit of pleasurable sensations. However, these concerns arose out of an evolutionary process that also prompted us (as social and as self-conscious creatures) to desire a sense of connection to other humans, nature, and the larger Cosmic Creative Process. So, the efforts to satisfy immediate human desires has undermined the fundamental human existential need to have a sense of connection.
All the world's religions have dealt with this dialectic, this internal conflict, of the human soul. On the one hand, humans want to satisfy innate desires, such as sensual pleasures and power. This invariably leads to exploitative attitudes and conflict, which alienates humans from their creative ground of being--i.e., family, tribe, and nature in general. At the same time, we self-conscious creatures need a sense of connection to our creative ground of being, or else we feel alone and terrified in the Universe. Animal liberation can address the second concern, but self-sacrifice is difficult for creatures with innately selfish tendencies. Many activists attempt to resolve this problem by risking their sense of purpose, meaning, and self-worth on the outcome of animal protection legislation. They sacrifice gratification of their natural human desires to experience tranquility and to enjoy the benefits of materialism in order to gain a sense of cosmic importance by assisting victims. The problem is, activists' projects often fail, at least in the short-term, and this leads to despair. A solution may be found in a different kind of spiritual outlook, discussed below.
Before getting there, it is helpful to first ask whether harming other individuals is always alienating. I don't think so. Those who harm animals out of necessity, with no intent to cause more suffering than necessary and with no pleasure derived from the act of hurting and killing per se, do not necessarily alienate themselves from their victims or nature in general. We often see associated with this non-alienating attitude a belief that the individual is part of nature, and respect for the deceased creature, manifest as a prayer of thanks to the creature's soul for allowing the creature to be killed. Of course, while this scenario may be seen in primal cultures, it does not describe American animal agriculture or hunting.
Now, one might argue that, from the animals' perspective, it doesn't matter much whether the killer says a prayer after the killing or not. Yet, I think there is a difference, which has to do with intention. The recreational hunter's intentions, for example, are violent and destructive, aimed at satisfying personal desires for entertainment without consideration for the victim. When our intentions are malevolent, our actions tend to be harmful. When are intentions are benign, our actions tend to have desirable (i.e., life-affirming, nurturing) outcomes. In order for the recreational hunter to maintain equanimity in the face of the harmful activity, it is necessary to perceive the animal as a "thing" that may be abused as the hunter pleases. Yet, as mentioned above, this alienating attitude invites anxiety and depression. This, I think, is the root of the Buddhist notion of karma, which holds that good begets good, and evil begets evil. I don't hold that there is some impartial deity whose judgements make sure evil-doings get their comeuppance. Rather, harmful intentions necessarily promote alienating attitudes towards others, which separates evil-doers from their own creative ground of being, leaving them more alienated and ultimately less contented with their lives. People often try to project an image of "success" and "happiness," but their exploitative, destructive attitudes leave them disconnected and alienated, making them more anxious and depressed. I think it was Kierkegaard who said, "We are not punished for our sins, but by them."
This last observation is most relevant to animal advocates. Those who do not harm, but rather seek to nourish and care for nonhumans, act with good intentions, and they generally make the world better for it. Animal activists cannot save all the animals. Humans will forever harm nonhumans, and nonhumans will forever harm each other. What we can do, however, is save ourselves. By embracing the rest of creation as part of ourselves, we can address our most fundamental spiritual (or, if you prefer, psychological) needs. Those who see their attitudes, and resulting actions, as benevolent, may experience an enhanced sense of connection to the Cosmic Creative Process and greater sense that their lives have meaning. Hopefully, animal activists' work will actually benefit animals, and activists should try to direct their efforts to those projects that seem most likely to help the victims. However, whether or not we make a tangible impact is ultimately out of their control. Maybe we will be critical links in a process that leads to animal liberation. Maybe we will have reduced animal suffering only a little, by virtue of our own choices of diet, clothing, etc., and perhaps by influencing a few others to do the same. Either way, we have gone far towards saving ourselves from the anxiety and depression that accompanies the other road, which may offer immediate benefits but also throws existential malaise into the bargain. And, we have shown a way for other people to save themselves, which they will do if they choose.
This spirituality can address the internal conflicts of the human soul. By remaining connected to nonhuman creation, we can enhance our sense of connection to the Cosmic Creative Process, which is responsible for our creative ground of being. This yields joyful experiences, which range from "communing with nature" to offering a nonhuman creature a friendly pat, knowing inside that, to the best of our abilities, we are friends of these creatures and the world around us. Further, our positive contributions to the world, however limited in scope, give our lives a sense of death-transcending meaning. This is a spirituality of love, and it is expressed in the metaphors of all the world's great religions, because they all attempt to resolve the inherent conflicts of human existence. Not surprisingly, their highly varied metaphors teach essentially the same thing, that embracing the Cosmic Creative Process is the path towards spiritual liberation, and this can only be accomplished by leading a life guided by love.
This brief essay has covered a lot of ground. Some of you may say "of course" to much I have written, while others may find many points unwarranted and/or unsubstantiated. Hopefully, it will inspire thought, if not discussion.
Many writers have, from different perspectives, addressed this issues discussed here. Some of the better ones, in my opinion, are:
Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth Sam Keen. Hymns to an Unknown God Ron Leifer. The Happiness Project David Loy. Lack and Transcendence Rollo May. Love and Will James Williams. The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred
Those interested in recommendation for further reading or aware of other literature that I might find helpful as I continue to explore these topics, are encouraged to contact me by private e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.