Also, as a guest in the homes of my Guatemalan coworkers, I was given meat during mealtime, even after explaining that I didn't eat meat. At the risk of appearing rude and ungrateful (meat is reserved for special guests and celebrations in Guatemala), I ate the meal they offered to me, trying to hide my disgust and dislike.
It seems that regardless of our actions in this modern era, there is suffering involved, even for those of us who are trying to live a compassionate life. From driving a car to eating vegetables picked by exploited immigrant labor, we are surrounded by suffering. Not to say that the plight of animals should be ignored, but shouldn't the human condition come first? Even in North America there are people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition, a problem thought to belong only to developing countries. In this context, it's hard for me to empathize with animals. It seems like a logical step to assume that when the human condition worldwide improves, the plight of animals will follow. But the reverse may not hold true. All creatures deserve compassion, but it seems necessary to prioritize at times, doesn't it? This is quite an internal struggle that I am facing, and I imagine there are others who are facing a similar one.
There has always been suffering in the world, and there will likely always be suffering in one form or another. For those who choose to deliberately devote their lives to creating a more compassionate world, the amount of suffering that exists can seem overwhelming. How do we determine the issues that are most important, and how do we prioritize which groups are most deserving of our attention? If our primary consideration is the sheer number of lives affected by exploitation, torture, and death, animals raised and slaughtered for food would surely win hands down.
Suffering is suffering, regardless of who is experiencing it. We humans tend to have the greatest empathy for our own species, much like other animals. We can relate to what other people go through because we know that the events of our lives, our emotions, and our hopes and dreams are similar. We naturally want to help other people, and we can understand and appreciate their trials and tribulations.
It is a greater challenge to identify with other animals who do not communicate in a language that even remotely replicates our own and whose physical characteristics and emotional framework are vastly different from the human body and psyche. At times it may take a leap of faith to believe that other animals suffer the same as we do. In large part this is due to our lack of regular interaction with animals. While we can witness the behavior of domesticated animals, such as dogs or cats, most species do not exhibit pain as blatantly as people; we usually need to study their cues that signal discomfort, distress, or more serious afflictions. Without training and ongoing exposure, it's easy for us to overlook the subtle indications of suffering that are rampant among other species, and which are most frequently caused by human neglect or intentional harm.
While it's true that there are people who are hungry and homeless throughout North America, we must not forget the individual cats and dogs who are hungry and without homes and who greatly outnumber their human counterparts. If we also take into account the vast numbers of animals abused in sports, vivisection, entertainment, and hunting, the figures are staggering.
Being compassionate people entails making compassionate choices every moment of our lives. At times these choices will be clear-cut and easy; at other times we may be confused and stymied. Caring for one group of living beings does not preclude us from caring for another group. Although we may not have the money or time necessary to help all the groups that need and deserve our assistance, we can ensure that the personal choices we make, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, contribute to the greater good for all. We can't save all the starving people in disadvantaged nations, but we can smile at our neighbors. We can't rescue all the homeless people in our own country, but we can volunteer to help at a food pantry, mission, or shelter. We can't single-handedly stop the brutal wars around the globe, but we can participate in peaceful protests and learn how to transform the anger and violence in our own hearts and relationships. We can't take in all the abandoned children of the world, but we can mentor a child in our community. We can't save all the billions of animals that are tortured, euthanized, and slaughtered each year, but we can adopt a dog, cat, or rabbit from a shelter or donate financially to a farmed animal sanctuary.
To support all these concerns, we can also practice a vegan lifestyle. Even if it isn't ideal or perfectly consistent, or even practical in every situation, we can do our best. That's all any of us can do at any given time. We can make the most compassionate choices given the limitations of our own humanity, and we can do so without ignoring the plight of one group in order to help another.