Leo Tolstoy once said “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Indeed, who would truly disagree that change starts with one’s self. It’s just that it’s easy to forget or to shortchange that part of the equation – especially when change is difficult – which, of course, it always is!
So I got to thinking about how I want to live in a humane world – a world characterized by compassion and respect for all life. So putting first things first, I realized that in order to pursue a humane world, I must first be willing to change (more than) a few things in myself.
Sure, I love and protect my family and friends. I lend a helping hand to others when I can. I keep pets that I adore and I stop to help turtles get across the road. I’m usually polite and friendly with my neighbors and colleagues. I drive an “energy-efficient” car and I recycle my household waste. Like most, I shun images and stories of abuse. Isn’t this enough to live humanely?
Well - Yes and No.
But maybe first I should consider why it is that I or anyone might strive to live humanely. Humane is defined as being “marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals.” (Merriam Webster) Most of us care about people and animals – at least a little bit. In fact, without delving too far beyond our current scope, we might at least acknowledge that a look at the most widely practiced religions will consistently reveal an emphasis on compassion, a term defined as “the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it.” (Princeton Wordnet Lexicon database)
Many consider compassion to rank among the very highest of human qualities. In fact, as the features once thought to set humans “above” the other animals continue to be overturned upon our closer inspection of other animals, our capacity for compassion may well be a principle defining hallmark of being fully human.
But in our complex world, living humanely and compassionately doesn’t come easily nor passively. We depend upon inexpensive clothing and material goods often produced by young people working in slave-like conditions in other countries. We buy pets produced by breeding stock so ill-kept we cannot bear to witness it. We consume record amounts of animal products produced under the most horrific conditions our world has ever seen. The waste we produce and discard threatens the health and sustainability of our environment in drastic measures that far exceed our awareness and our willingness to acknowledge. And we readily unleash our resulting pent up frustrations through a mask of social media and politics that allows us to bully and belittle those whose opinions we don’t want to hear.
Well – this list could go on but you can see, it’s really not easy to be humane in our culture.
Humane living is the practice of living with conscious awareness and attention to how our choices affect the wellbeing of people, animals, and environment. Such a practice requires a conscious commitment and dedication. As Jane Goodall, the prominent primatologist and humane education advocate, once said: “The most important thing is to actually think about what you do. To become aware and actually think about the effect of what you do on the environment and on society. That's key, and that underlies everything else."
Our efforts to live humanely are challenged on so many levels. We have limited knowledge of the consequences of our choices. Big institutionalized systems hide abuses and use the immense power of marketing to influence our choices and lure us into an insatiable wanting for their goods. We naturally resist the discomfort of change. We pursue power and prestige and compete for resources – even when resources are plentiful. Information overload wears down our physical and mental ability to attend to critical detail. And we find ourselves simply being swept up in a culture of comfort at the top of the “resource chain.”
One might easily throw up one’s hands and declare a life of humane compassion to be beyond our reach. Indeed, our tendency is to deny and to “normalize” the disturbing impact of our behaviors on the lives of others. (see How People Come to Accept Violence Against Animals as Normal) Of course, life has “always been full of hardship and suffering – it’s really not our responsibility.”
While it may not be “my responsibility”, the simple fact remains that the complex process of human activity, when driven by greed and thoughtlessness, introduces enormous suffering into the world. And it is equally true that we, as humans, hold the power to ameliorate and end most of this “man-made” suffering – if and as we choose to do so.
If I hope to make a difference I must remember the greatness of our power. That power lies, first, in our capacity, beyond all other creatures, to thoughtfully and critically choose our actions and behaviors; secondly, in our ability to share ideas and speak freely – to be influenced by and to influence those around us and; and thirdly, in our consumer power – the power to influence and change institutionalized processes through our purchasing and consumption choices.
So lest I rest passively in my general good nature while the broader impact of my humanity is wreaking havoc on the life of planet earth, I will actively engage the practice of humane living. I will seek to learn about the impact of my choices on those near and far, human and non-human. I will invite the guidance and teaching of others willing to share. I will gently acknowledge my failures but I will not let them stop me. And I will joyously celebrate each success that moves me and us toward a more humane world.
A question posed by environmentalist and artist, Chris Jordan, aptly captures the challenge before us. He asks, “Do we have the courage to face the difficulties of our time and to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?” I will strive to have the courage and the will to change the world through my choices and I invite you to join me.