The Animal’s All Knowing Gaze
What do humans do when we feel shame? Typically, we hide from it. We duck away from the source of that shame, from the person or situation that evokes our feelings of inadequacy and cowardice. We build walls and indulge in irony. Very few humans I know are truly brave enough to face the deepest sources of their weakness and deal with personal failures in an aggressive and honest way. We rely on our impressive frontal lobe to dissemble, protecting ourselves by any means necessary, and doing so most notably by avoiding the mirror that throws our shame back at us with a fury. Because, well, that can hurt.
Animals are, in some respects, our mirror. They can hurt us with the sincerity of their gaze. It’s easy to reduce the animals around us—the companion animals to whom we toss a frisbee, the cockatiels to whom we whistle and talk, the horses on whom we canter and admire—as innocent creatures here to make us happy, to enrich out lives. A source of pleasure alone. Of course, anyone who thinks seriously about the inner lives of animals knows this opinion to be dangerously false. But what’s rarely (if ever) questioned is the extent to which an animal’s gaze, if we submit to it, evokes our shame, highlighting our failures as individuals and as humans, and shakes us to the core. Of course, the only way we can submit to that experience is if we are physically with animals, willing to endure a hard look from one species into the darkened heart of our own.
This idea came to me while continuing to read Kari Weil’s fascinating Thinking Animals. Especially thoughtful was her remark that our shared lives with animals “can make us feel small or powerless, deprive us of our place of privilege . . .” I simply chose to think about that shared experience with animals in terms of shame, posing the hypothesis that the human habit of avoiding direct confrontation with our deepest insecurities may be challenged by an honest relationship with an animal. This avoidance, I would surmise (controversially), is one reason that many animal rights activists advocate that we stay as far away from animals as possible, vowing not to house, ride, leash, or exploit them in any way. It’s a response framed in part by personal fear of knowing our demons.
I can already hear the angry fingers banging into the keyboards. But rest assured: I’m not saying that the motivation to steer clear of animals is not coming from a genuine interest in protecting animal rights. It surely is. What I am saying, though, is that such a noble motive might not be a pure motive (what motive is?). It might have, even subconsciously, the ulterior and self-interested purpose of saving us the discomfort of being under the hard gaze of an animal, a gaze that can, in its purity and honesty, say to us, “why do you not do more for me?; why have you destroyed my environment?; what have you done to my genetic heritage; who the f*** do you think you are? Why are you so weak and selfish?” These sort of questions, the ones that make us, you know, feel ashamed.
So, the hypothesis, one that I think is worth developing in the context of the popular “leave animals alone” argument, might go something like this: the presence of animals is sort of like a dose of truth serum. Those who seek that presence, on whatever psychological level, might be indirectly seeking greater insight into and recognition of their own insecurities, the sources of their own shame and cowardice. By contrast, those who seek to leave animals in peace, free to live on their own terms, might be partially driven by fear of the power of that serum, and the kind of truth it will ask us, as humans, as individuals, to face within ourselves. To want to be free of all animal relations is to want to be free from knowing our deepest, truest selves. Who knows? But it’s not a bad idea to start off the new year with.
2013. How did that happen?
Have a happy one.