Empathy for Animals vs. Human Suffering

I can’t say enough good about “Following Francis,” by Susan Pitchford. This is a person following hard after God, and writing about it with freshness and wit. I’m halfway through, and savoring every short chapter.

This morning I read about a trip she took to Ghana to visit prisons from the slave trade. As you can imagine, she described some horrifying things. Then, going back to her hotel, her taxi passed a goat that had been struck, lying in blood and kicking its legs in pain. That’s when her tears began.

She wrote, “I used to feel guilty about my response to animal suffering, because it seems out of proportion: at an irrational, gut level not calibrated to my values, it gets to me in a way that human suffering doesn’t.”

Yes! That’s exactly how I am! And I’ve felt guilty about it, too. I’ve felt vulnerable to people accusing, “If you only cared as much about an aborted baby/a trafficked child/a leper as you do about an abused dog or lion.”

I’m deeply disturbed by human suffering, but something about animals really gets to me. Perhaps they, too are the “least of these”–powerless, dependent, disregarded. Perhaps a heart response to suffering, no matter what kind, should be regarded as a gift from God.

As Pitchford writes, “Whenever we witness the suffering of another in an attitude of radical openness–of compassion, not turning away, but allowing ourselves to feel something of that suffering–we enter into Christ’s own heart. Just as when we suffer for him, we share something of his cross.”

I still don’t know what exactly to make of my empathy for animals, but as I continue pondering it, it’s nice to know there’s at least one other person out there who is a kindred spirit.

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