The Animal’s All Knowing Gaze

» January 1st, 2013

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.


7 Responses to The Animal’s All Knowing Gaze

  1. Kris says:

    I read this article with a google reader app on my phone. The very next item that came up in my list was a picture of a puppy from Cute Overload, a site that shows pictures of “cute” animals. With your words still fresh in my mind, I had to think- is there still power in “the gaze” even through a picture or a video?
    There have been many occassions in which a “cute” picture of an animal has given me pause. When I see a picture of a cow in a pasture, ear tagged and all, I feel a deep, horrible shame (no matter how comically far its tongue sticks out). The same goes for chickens, pigs, sheep, etc. This “digital gaze” certainly has an effect on me, one similar to (but not quite as strong) as the guilt I feel when I greet cows or sheep while on my longer walks (having lived in Scotland and now Denmark, both are fairly common sights even in urban areas). I certainly feel this shame that you describe, both in real life and while looking at pictures or videos. Is there hope to be had in a “digital gaze,” that someone who looks at pictures and videos of farm animals (or puppies and kitties for that matter) will feel increasingly conscious/shameful of their consumption habits? Can someone “submit to” a gaze that occurs through an image?

  2. carolyn z says:

    “Human” is a constructed identity which rests upon the rejection of that we’ve defined as “animal”. As with all other false dichotomies of the ego, the animal goes into our shadow self. So when we see animals externally, we are bound to project upon them and see the shame of our shadow in them.

    The things we’ve disowned do not go away, they just go beneath consciousness. When faced with that which we’ve disowned– the animal– some of us may relate to our reactions and shame by going towards, and others by going away, and others by freezing, doing nothing. We are at once terrified of and drawn to that which we call “animal”. Because really “animal” is just an idea– it no more than a part of ourselves whose realities we have dismissed from consciousness. An identity always relates with shame to that which it has banned to its own shadow.

    This kind of thing comes with the psychological territory of being part of any oppressive social group, of being the Self to an Other, as Simone de Beauvoir and other theorists have named it. Animals are the ultimate Other– they are the psychospiritual trash cans of all that humanity has disowned.

  3. CQ says:

    The beautiful eyes, bronze coloring, and shaggy beard in that photo are the spitting image of my neighbor’s dog, Truffle! :-)

    I can relate to your hypothesis, James, in the sense that to this day I live with regrets — with shame — over how I sometimes lorded it over my canine companions.

    Knowing that I could have been kinder makes me choke up every time I think about these incidents. Walking past a church yard where my last dog friend left earth’s scene inevitably brings back memories of what I could’ve done better.

    The fact that each dog was always instantly forgiving — expressing exuberant affection as soon as I came to my senses and humbly apologized — gives me hope that one day I will be able to move beyond the still-repenting stage to the point of completely forgiving myself.

    I think I owe this to them, even though they’re gone now. They wouldn’t want the reformed me to keep holding on to self-recrimination. As I work my way through these things, their honesty, uprightness, innocence, and generous spirit continue to teach me.

    Looking back, I believe the reproachful gazes were their way of telling me, “You’re not living up to who I know you to be. I know the real you — the respectful you, the kind you, the patient you, yes, the forgiving you — underneath that mask you’ve put on. So quit living a lie and quit trying to fool me. I know the true you — the you that would never hurt my feelings or make me afraid, not for all the world. So see yourself as I see you. Love yourself as I love you.”

    Having written this just now, I’m realizing that letting go of all vestiges of shame is the best way I can honor them — can thank them for “the sincerity of their gaze.”

  4. Debbie says:

    A few days ago my dog and I went to the humane society to find a new family member. As I walked past each of the caged dogs I of course looked into the eyes of each and as I moved on to the next I felt guilt that was almost overwhelming. I had specific criteria I was looking for but while looking in the eyes of each of the dogs my criteria felt selfish and meaningless. They all need a home. I know that I obviously cannot give a home to every animal in the shelter but at the same time am I being selfish by only having two dogs in my home? I’m wondering if my feeling of guilt comes from the knowledge that I could help more but I don’t because it is more convenient. I often hear the same “convenience” excuse from people when we talk about going vegan.

    • CQ says:

      Oh, wow, I know that feeling of seeing rows of pleading eyes in a shelter; I used to volunteer at one. It was much easier to help out in the barn, where I knew the horses and pigs and chickens would be adopted, than in the cat-and-dog kennel area, where the last dog I took for a little walk ended up being euthanized a few minutes later (I didn’t figure it out ’til afterwards, and it sickened me).

      May I ask what you mean by “more convenient” [to not have more than two dogs]? I wonder if you’re being fair to yourself. Each of us can only do so much without being overwhelmed. That stressed-out feeling that would filter down to the dogs you adopt, wouldn’t it?

      It would seem that if you reach the stage where you feel really peaceful and sensible about having three (or more) dogs share your house, then it’ll be a right idea. But basing decisions on guilt doesn’t end up being to anyone’s advantage, I’ve learned.

      I think it’s wonderful that you’re looking for a new friend to welcome home, Debbie! Please let us know when you and your dog companion and “the one” who is meant to be with you all discover and fall for one another. :-)

  5. Bea Elliott says:

    There’s some wonderful observations and comments here… That gaze is something that’s forced conversations in my house that include the word “walk” to be spelled out instead of said. Anyone who’s had canine friends knows that the walk you had just two hours ago is meaningless compared to the walk you could have “right now!”.

    And CQ’s revelation reminds me of the phrase “please let me be half the man my dog thinks I am”. Because of the adoration we see in their eyes, that would make us exceptionally kind and wonderful wouldn’t it? Like the real human(e) beings we have the potential to be… Like I’m certain we will be — someday.

  6. Montana says:

    Is this what most humans feel when they are gazed at or share gaze with other animals? This may speak volumes about most/average human egos (or at least ones that go into, or have an interest in psychology?). There are plenty of us that can share gaze with fellow animals (including humans) and we feel none of these, maybe in part because we don’t feel shame about those things because we don’t choose to feel or act in those megative behaviors and actively work to improve this world without really thinking about it (I certainly help most living creatures, most of the time whenever I feel my intervening is nessicary.).

    The writer of the article and these other avoiders of gaze may well want to turn their own gaze inward and figure out why they enjoy doing those things, as well as why they do them (and yet also feel shame about them). It seems to be fairly telling of the “I know exactly what I am doing but refuse to see it, and do something about it” aka being resistant to change, their own feelings, accepting themselves and their flaws, etc.

    Very concerned for the article writer. I know most people study/go into paychology in hope of figuring out “what’s wrong” or “figure themselves out.” (Or negatively: try and find an excuse for their behavior or blame it on something else so they can justify it to themselves, etc).

    As well as the rest of humanity of the claims made here are true for a majority of people.

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