For some, the awakening to animal suffering at the hands of human indifference happens in an instant. For others, it is a process. But whenever and however that understanding surfaces, a continuing deep pain and sadness for animals is inescapable. Trying to put those feelings into words can feel like communicating from a place outside the five senses, from a kind of sixth sense that doesn’t speak in terms of normal perception.
Franceen Neufeld’s Suffering Eyes: A Chronicle of Awakening[Purposeful Publishing House, Ontario, Canada] manages this challenge in the most eloquent and moving way. At the outset, she ponders her growing awareness of the pain and fear that animals feel, from factory farms to the snake, half-crushed by the wheels of a speeding car. The recognition of sentient beings so callously disregarded pierces her psyche and transforms who she is – as it does for many animal advocates. Later, she revisits these reflections to share the thoughts and sources out of which they grew. The effect is like viewing a piece of art, then hearing from the artist her inspiration for creating the piece. It’s a fascinating look into the creative process itself, as well as offering greater insight into the author’s experience.
Ms. Neufeld’s prose is nothing short of music. It sounds with an emotional power that many times brought me to tears. And throughout, her directness and humility add depth to her “awakening.” After watching a documentary about an elephant rehabilitation center in Nairobi, she writes:
I’m stuck. In the mud. Of my muddied mind.
It’s those baby elephants. I can’t go there. Rage is waiting for me if I go there. Helpless, impotent rage. A world of evil, and I sit here with nothing I can do about it. Except spew out pointless drivel on a page. For what?
My fingers keep punching out the letters, punching out the words, feeble jabs in the air, while humans like me are ripping apart great beautiful beings and leaving the babies to die of grief.
Human. Mean, ugly thing to be.
What good are words when babies are longing for their mothers?
The author rails at the helplessness of words, and yet those same words will resonate for passionate animal lovers. First we must see, then weep, then come to the inevitable question: What do we do with these feelings? Suffering Eyes does not pretend to have all the answers, but the book does offer an uplifting and somewhat surprising perspective that the sadness one feels at bearing witness is not simply a moral duty, but is in fact an indicator of a healthy and healing heart. I take comfort in that thought! I also appreciate Ms. Neufeld’s understanding that words may seem ineffective and weak in the face of animal suffering, but we must keep putting them out there. They may not have an immediate impact, but they will be there when the reader is ready to see, the listener ready to hear. She relates the following Hasidic tale:
A disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
I was fortunate enough to meet the author and Calvin Neufeld, her son and editor, with whom I shared a panel at this summer’s Animal Rights Conference. He spoke about the book and read excerpts that at the conclusion brought everyone to their feet. Franceen sat in the front row, her warmth and grace shining like a light. They have chosen to give all the proceeds of Suffering Eyes to animal sanctuaries. This book will be perched at eye level on my bookshelf forever, not merely so I can pick it up when I need to, but as a reminder of both mother and son’s stirring commitment to animals.
The book is available at animal sanctuaries or can be ordered from their website.
Robin Lamont is an animal activist and writer, living in New York’s Hudson Valley. And she’s a regular contributor on Our Hen House. Learn more about Robin and The Kinship Series.