Having just returned from the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, I’m newly inspired not only in terms of my own writing but by the magnificence of the natural world and the ways in which we can appreciate and nurture it. Spending the week on the water, with deer roaming past our cabins every day, I found it impossible not to think about nature and animals.
Early in the week, poet Ashley Capps gave a wonderful craft lecture on empathy. Among other works, she read Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” and offered a juxtapoesis — a slide show of images that resemble each other, from a magnified sweat gland that evoked a head of lettuce to the face of a terrified girl next to a calf in a kill chute. Ashley made important connections that highlight the necessity to see ourselves in others and to be empathetic in our lives and in our writing.
I especially enjoyed Ashley’s reading a few nights later, during which she read not only her beautiful poems but an essay she’d recently published with Our Hen House, as a response to OHH’s New York Times call for essays on “why it’s ethical to eat meat.” As Ashley writes in her essay, “In any discussion concerning the ethics of eating animals, it feels important to begin by pointing out a frequently overlooked distinction: that harming and killing animals from necessity is not morally equivalent to harming and killing animals for pleasure…It’s important to realize that, with a few exceptions, when humans kill other animals for food, we’re not doing what animals do in nature. When animals kill other animals for food, they do as they must, in order to survive; they have no choice in the matter. Many humans, on the other hand, do have a choice…”
Most compelling and true was Ashley’s conclusion: “Finally, to harm animals for pleasure is also, ultimately, to harm ourselves. Constantly acting in opposition to our own core values deforms our hearts — and it diminishes our integrity, and hinders our emotional and moral growth….What can it mean for caring people to regularly reject compassionate choices that cost them next to nothing, and to instead embrace unnecessary violence that costs its victims, literally, everything?”
For more of her amazing poetry, as well as her writing about animals and compassion, visit Ashley’s website as well as her blog.
2 thoughts on “On writing and empathy”
Commenting on the last part of your article: “Most compelling and true was Ashley’s conclusion: ‘Finally, to harm animals for pleasure is also, ultimately, to harm ourselves. Constantly acting in opposition to our own core values deforms our hearts — and it diminishes our integrity, and hinders our emotional and moral growth…’
I just finished reading a book about heart disease, and indeed, we not only spiritually and ethically harm our hearts, but also physically. According to Dr. C. Esselstyn in “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” animal based protein actually leads to heart disease, while plant based diets can curb it, and help prevent it, and in the case study in the book, even reverse it. Maybe heart disease and high cholesterol are nature’s way of reinforcing this concept of not killing animals for eating when unneccesary–something maybe we should ethically already know !?
Thank you for sharing your conference experience. L. Baden
Laura, thanks so much for your comments! There is indeed so much evidence to support the health benefits of a plant-based diet (in fact, many people go vegan for health reasons alone) and I like your making the mind-body-heart connection. I loved the film Forks Over Knives (http://www.forksoverknives.com/about), which is all about this — amazing.
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