I reached a new level of consciousness upon reading the Dog-Eared Page excerpt from In My Own Way, by Alan Watts [June 2011], in which he compares our inevitable departure from this world to our never having existed prior to being born. This little interlude we call “life” is momentary and soon gone. Anyone we will ever meet, interact with, or hear about sooner or later ceases to be. Watts prods us to dwell on this nothingness, not to understand it, but to experience it.
As I did this, instead of feeling small, fleeting, or insignificant (all of which I am), I felt a connection to others, our earth, and the universe. Through this one fact — impermanence — we are all united.
“Dear Sugar” [June 2011] filled me with many emotions, “all smashed together and amplified,” as Sugar writes. Her advice is loving and real. I hope that you include more of her columns in the future. The credibility, candor, and integrity of her responses speak to the reasons I read your magazine.
After reading “Dear Sugar,” I feel as though I’ve spent eighteen months in the office of a Gestalt psychologist. Everything she says is on point and genuinely good advice. I have no idea how this author got so smart, but I’m old enough to know she’s for real, and I needed to hear some of those lessons again.
In Sy Safransky’s June 2011 Notebook, he assumes his probability of dying in a plane crash is one in two because there are only two possible outcomes: crash or no crash. I know Safransky is taking artistic license when he invokes this common mathematical misconception. What I want to know is: why aren’t we as quick to use that same reasoning when assigning the chance of an unlikely good event? After all, either we win the lottery or we don’t. Either we receive forgiveness and understanding from everyone we have wronged or we don’t. Either we get published in high-quality national magazines like The Sun or we don’t.
I was a little annoyed when I first read Jeri Becker Nager’s request for help in your May 2011 Correspondence. It was like seeing a homeless person at the intersection: it threw my privilege right back into my face. Of all the people experiencing hardship, I wondered, how did this one woman get her plea into The Sun? The familiar conflict built inside me: my heart wanted me to act — to send her some money — but my mind oscillated between rationalizing my inaction and blaming the editors for putting me in this situation.
I moved on to Gillian Kendall’s interview with Peter Singer [“The Greater Good”]. When Kendall asks if he is an atheist, Singer answers, “Yes, because I cannot believe that an all-powerful benevolent being could allow the sort of world that we live in to exist. There is too much unnecessary suffering.”
At that moment, I paged back to Nager’s letter, and I saw it clearly: The all-powerful benevolent being was acting to relieve unnecessary suffering in the world, right now. It had acted through Nager, when she’d found the courage to reach out for help. It had acted through the postal service when it had delivered her letter. It had acted through The Sun’s staff when they had decided to print the letter, knowing that reactions might be critical. And now it was compelling me to act to relieve some of that unnecessary suffering. And I will.
Because of the great inequality in the distribution of goods and resources in the world, how we eat, shop, drive, and dress have all become ethical issues. Our individual choices affect millions of others.
We need people like Peter Singer to awaken and provoke our conscience. It was after reading his 1995 book How Are We to Live? that I took my first journey to India to help ease the suffering of that country’s animals. What you choose to do after you get his message is up to you.
In response to Peter Singer’s argument for vegetarianism: I wish that I knew that my life would end with my body becoming the main course at a gathering of friends. How much better that than being burned or put in the ground! Think of the hours spent poring over the cookbooks, peering in the oven, basting and tasting and preparing dishes. Loved ones in their best clothes, laughter, and the cheery clinking of glasses before that first bite. Yes, I wish I could be fed to friends at the end of my life.
We will all certainly die, and life is not lived without suffering. If my death can be a part of a glad moment in someone else’s life, then perhaps I will not really be gone after all.
I could not help but smile at the interview with Peter Singer. Have we forgotten that predators and predation are an essential part of the balance of nature? Do not carnivores and omnivores deserve equal consideration with herbivores? Are humans not both predator and prey? The lion, mosquito, and the carrion bird apparently regard us as the latter.
Peter Singer has demonstrably improved the world, but your interview with him reminded me of something author and environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote in 1979 about animal egalitarianism: “If all animals are equal, then we humans, obviously, are no better than any other animals. Being no better, we cannot be expected to behave any better. Therefore, it is perfectly logical, as well as natural, that we do as others do: expand to the limits of our range, exterminate competitors, multiply our numbers well beyond the carrying capacity of our territory, submit to mass die-offs periodically, and so on. On the other hand, if we demand of ourselves that we behave rationally, display tolerance and even love for all other forms of life, then it would seem to follow that we are asking of humans a moral sensitivity unknown to lesser — excuse me! — other animals.”
It’s not that I don’t care about animal suffering. Yet I need look no further than my own incisors to know that 5 million years of selective breeding have led me, an omnivorous, predatory primate, to savor bacon.
I served my extended family a vegan Easter dinner this year, and I try to help the planet by eating less meat. But it’s hard to imagine how our whole species could ever go as far down this path as Singer would take us.
Peter Singer answers Gillian Kendall’s question about whether insects feel pain by saying, “There are gradations of certainty about animal suffering. It’s very clear that chimps feel pain and equally clear that plants don’t.”
I would suggest that he look at The Secret Life of Plants, by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, which makes a compelling case that plants do indeed feel pain and can communicate emotions to other plants and animals.
Peter Singer responds:
The replies to my arguments by Lemuel Dean Mitchell, John Deever, and Roger Ulrich are not new. Readers can find my lengthy comments on these objections in my book Animal Liberation. But to reply very briefly: I have never claimed that nonhuman animals are moral agents, as normal adult humans are. As for the experiments on plants to which Ulrich refers, there have been attempts to repeat them, but no proper scientific study has ever been able to get the results that the book’s authors describe.
I deeply identify with Anne Templeton’s essay “My Sister Teaches Me the ABC’s” [May 2011]. As the sibling of a mentally ill brother, I have struggled with many of the same issues: the fear that mental illness was incubating in me, waiting to come out at a time of stress; the guilt for not being able to do more; the choice of a “helping” profession (I am a social worker) so I can continue to focus on other people’s problems rather than my own; the resentment over the responsibility of caring for him.
Her last sentence resonates most of all: “We sat like three stumps in the tasteful beige visiting area . . . all of us remembering the fourth member of our quartet, tethered to her even in her overpowering absence.” My family is in many ways defined by my brother and his illness. I have never seen this fact expressed so poignantly and eloquently.
About halfway through reading Saint James Harris Wood’s essay “Saving Danny James” [February 2011], I said to myself, This guy can’t be a prisoner. The writing’s too good. Then the light bulb went on: Wasn’t this just the kind of Jim Crow thinking Michelle Alexander was talking about in the same issue [“Throwing Away the Key,” interview by Arnie Cooper]? The kind of thinking I thought I didn’t do?
I am a fan of your magazine and look forward to each issue, but I find your no-advertising policy, while noble, impractical in this day and age. Its failure is exemplified by your constant coming hat in hand to subscribers to ask for help funding the magazine. I feel you could accept some tasteful advertising such as one finds in Smithsonian. Such ads can both be interesting and promote worthwhile products.
I have to stop reading The Sun at my local diner — if only for the sake of the other patrons. It must be unsettling to glance over and see a man in his fifties, sitting alone, his eyes welling up with tears over a harmless-looking magazine.