“I expect to pass through this world but once; any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” -Stephen Grellet
I remember when I first witnessed cruelty.
Sure, over the course of my young life I had seen various new stories about this person shooting that person or the 48 Hours Mystery episodes that always freaked my younger self and my mother out, making us extra cautious about going to sleep that same night, checking and rechecking the locks on our doors.
But this cruelty I witnessed was different because it happened right before my young eyes rather than passively through a TV screen.
A Memory I Cannot Forget
I was maybe 7 or 8, or perhaps 9. It is hard to remember now. But I was in Croatia, the country of my heritage where I spent most of my childhood summers with my grandparents at our family’s village home in the region of Zagorje.
I was walk-skipping around our small, new rectangular fish pond — a place my grandfather, a recreational fisherman, had always dreamed of having since he was a young boy. The fish — catfish and trout — were still new residents to the pond so the water was murky-clear, unlike how it is today — mudded from age (but still teeming with life).
The sun was setting against Zagorje’s rolling green hills, the sky turning a hazy mixture of orange, pink and blackish gray. And I was here at the fish pond with my grandfather. We had just finished throwing dried yellow corn and pieces of stale bread to the fish.
This was a favorite part of my days at our family home — watching the fish come to the surface to gobble up the goodies we gave them, their shiny fins and bodies slapping the water’s surface, creating small ripples.
As I walked along, I moved carefully, quietly, almost on my tip toes, not wanting to scare the frogs. But they were easily scared — jumping into the water from a crevice in the stone walkway as soon as they felt a vibration or heard the drop of my foot as it hit the cement.
I watched with awe as these scenes of life unfolded before me — a life I was only observing from the small spot I occupied in their universe.
As my grandfather worked and I walked, we were greeted by a furry black dog visitor who ran through our open fence doorway and up to us with such boundless joy and energy you couldn’t help but smile and feel instantly at peace. He was happy to see us — and I was happy to see him, as if we were old friends reuniting at last.
This dog — who knew nothing of me or my grandfather — showed us such kindness and gentleness that I will never forget him.
I begged my grandfather, “Can we keep him? Can we keep him?”
My grandfather, a man of few words, replied with a jolly smile and a hearty chuckle, nodding his head.
“Can we keep him?” I asked again.
“Yes, if no one comes for him,” my grandfather said.
I jumped up and down, ecstatic — I had never had a dog before, but I was no stranger to having animal companions. Nearly every summer I spent in Croatia, I had the honor of being surrounded by barn cats and sweet hens and protective roosters from our relatives’ farm next door.
Over the years, I also had the pleasure of caring for (with my grandmother’s ample help) many non-human members to our village family — a pair of ducks named Peep Peep and Splash, a rabbit named Curiosity and her many babies ranging in name from Brownie to Bunnicula, a pair of chickens named Blizzard and Blondie, and an amazingly fearless cat named Junior.
To have a dog was the icing on the cake! But alas, his owner, our neighbor, came back for him.
The man stood there speaking with my grandfather, the dog hanging out nearby. I was walking toward them, leaving the fish pond behind, when the man called his dog. He trotted over, tail wagging.
Then the man kicked him, kicked him hard in the ribs. And he kicked him again, harder still.
The dog whimpered and immediately collapsed into himself, skidding away from his owner’s foot. He was no longer the happy-go-lucky dog that greeted us just 15 minutes ago — he became an abuse victim right before our eyes.
It terrified me, having never witnessed something like this before. I froze.
A few moments later I slowly inched closer, but still wanted to keep my distance from this man. I wanted so badly to punch him in the face — I day-dreamed about it right then, hitting him square in the jaw, watching him recoil in pain and surprise.
But of course I didn’t — I was too small and too afraid. I said nothing. And my grandfather said nothing. I don’t blame him for his silence because you didn’t tell people what they do with their business. And perhaps my grandfather was in shock too, and also a little afraid — I will never know (RIP Deda <3).
The scene replayed in my head as I stood there silent: the man kicking his dog, once, twice, and the dog recoiling from his touch with his tail between his legs, his body hunched.
I can’t help but forget this, this moment of cruelty, because it was so senseless and unnecessary. I didn’t know this man very well. All I knew was that he was our neighbor, although I had heard rumblings that perhaps he wasn’t the greatest human being in the world.
But that shouldn’t have mattered.
It shouldn’t matter if you’re a good person or if you’re a little morally off. It shouldn’t matter because we should treat others with respect and compassion.
But we don’t.
We know all too well the lack of compassion that permeates through our society and the ways in which we treat each other as well as the ways in which we treat our fellow beings on this Earth.
However, this moment painted a very clear picture for me of how random and sudden cruelty can be. This man just reacted and likely didn’t think, “Oh yes, the dog ran away from our house and to our neighbor’s; I am going to kick him.”
Or perhaps he did because he was angry.
But he didn’t seem very angry while talking with my grandfather. He kicked the dog anyway despite his calm demeanor. It was like he wanted to make a spectacle of it, to show us that he could rule, that this was his property, this dog — this kind, loving dog.
Choosing Compassion Over Cruelty
I thought about this memory today as I read an article exposing common cruelties on a mink fur farm in Russia.
I won’t go into any gory details (you can find those through Google) but these are some of many cruelties that people inflict on other beings of this Earth simply because they feel superior to them and because they want what they want and they don’t give a damn what is done to get it.
But this is wrong — is it not?
I understand that we all come from different backgrounds and upbringings and that we all don’t live in the same mode of thinking that I live in. I am aware of this and I can appreciate our differences. But it is difficult for me to grasp why we choose cruelty and why we choose to support cruelty though our buying choices when we can make a difference. We can make a change.
We do not have to choose cruelty, we can choose respect and compassion.
I try to have compassion for all living beings. You will never hear me say “I hate that ugly snake,” “I hate that disgusting spider,” or “I hate that pesky groundhog.”
You will not hear me say these things, not because I feel morally superior to my peers, but because I truly believe that hatred and fear can breed untold cruelties in us and acceptance of cruelty if push comes to shove.
And so I am always careful because I believe in making the world better. And one way to do that is to show compassion for all — all our fellow humans and all our fellow animals.
I look forward to a day, if it ever does come, when kindness and compassion outweigh the cruelty. I look forward to continuing to fight for these better days, this better model. We can do better, and I expect us to do better.
On Writing This Post
When I was thinking about this post, I didn’t want to hit the wrong notes. I didn’t want to it to sound like a diatribe from the animal protection movement, although I am a part of this movement as well as other social movements.
I wanted the post to be relatable to readers so that you would be open to what I’m saying and not shut me off because you aren’t in the same mental space as I am — which is totally fine.
But I knew I needed to write this and I know I will continue to write about this topic and related issues throughout the course of my life.
While we live sometimes in a cruel world and live surrounded by some people who choose to commit cruel acts, we also live in a world where people are fighters, where people get up in the morning with a fervor in their blood and choose to do the right thing — they choose to be kind and they choose to be compassionate and they choose to think before they act and not react.
They choose love, not hate. They choose to be open rather than afraid. And this is the type of world I hope we are moving closer to.
So much has changed over the past two decades — I am so incredibly impressed — but I also tremble with some fear. There are people trying to push us forward and people trying to push us backward — but that is always the fight, isn’t it?
We must climb a huge hill or a mountain the size of Mount Kilimanjaro to get to the other side. And we may then still need to swim across a dangerous lake the size of Lake Victoria and as choppy and unpredictable as Lake Superior. But we can persevere in the face of these obstacles, especially if we are willing to put our pettiness and egos aside and band together.
And so this is why I wrote this post — it needed to be written because we need to do more and we need to do better.
I sincerely feel in my bones that we all have the capacity for compassion — no matter how much cruelty or unkindness one may inflict on another human or non-human — I know there is more to you than that.
We can all be more and we already are more — if we make the choice to wake up with compassion in our hearts.
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“I raise up my voice–not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard.” -Malala Yousafzai
“I know you can’t live on hope alone; but without hope, life is not worth living. So you, and you and you: you got to give them hope; you got to give them hope.” -Harvey Milk
Feature photo credit: Brijuni National Park Donkey / KP