Strange Mercy

"... and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

Location: Mid-Atlantic Sprawl, United States

I'm a former idealist turned 'defensive pessimist' who has concluded, after living on two coasts, two continents, and an island, that most of us spend our lives as prey, economically and psychologically. Awareness is the key to understanding this; but once we understand it, we may transcend it, choosing, when we can, to be neither prey nor predator.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Profound Decency of Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin lives among us as An Anthropologist on Mars. An extremely intelligent, very highly functioning autistic woman, she used that term to describe herself in an interview with neurologist Oliver Sacks...

That was 1995. It is now 2007, one year since Dr. Grandin has updated a book that she published in the same year Dr. Sacks described her: Thinking in Pictures.

Yes; I said Dr. Grandin; she holds a Ph.D. in animal science. Her professional life has been dedicated to easing the suffering of America's food animals, and she has a gift for this, because she knows how animals think. Her thoughts and feelings are so similar to theirs that she has been able to design equipment for kosher sacrifice that keeps the animals calm and at ease to their very final breath; she has done the same for many non-kosher facilities as well.

In reading "Thinking in Pictures", I was struck, over and over, by the simplicity, the lack of pretentiousness, the inability to even fathom pretentiousness, the directness, the wise and knowing innocence of this remarkable woman. Her thoughts are so clear, so stimulating, and at times so moving that I am compelled to share some of them here. I hope that, if she ever sees this post, she will appreciate the tribute.


"I think with the primary sensory based subconscious areas of the brain. ... since I think with the subconscious, repression does not occur and denial is impossible. ... My memory is not automatic. ... However, I can search through old memories of really bad events, such as being fired from a job, with no emotion. At the time I was fired I cried for two days."

"When I was ten or eleven, it seemed totally illogical to me that a Protestant religion was better than the Jewish or Catholic religion.  ... I've met many autistic people who share my faith that all religions are valid and valuable. ... my favorite of Einstein's words on religion is: 'Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.'"

"I had visited an Arabian horse farm where great pains were taken to treat each horse as an individual.  ... The next day I was on a feedlot operating the chute while cattle were being branded and vaccinated. When I looked at each steer, it had the same look of individuality as the stallions. For me the big question was, how could I justify killing them?"

"... unless there is death, we could not appreciate life. Having first faced the paradox of power and responsibility, and coming to terms with my ambivalent feelings of controlling animals with devices such as cattle chutes, I now had to face the paradox of life and death."

"... When I read that the Olympic stadium and the main library in Sarajevo had been destroyed, I wept. ... I become very upset and emotional when I think about the loss of knowledge and culture, and I am unable to write about this without crying. ... I don't know what it is like to hate somebody so much that you would want to destroy their culture and civilization."

"... I believe that if souls exist in humans, they also exist in animals, because the basic structure of the brain is the same. ... However, there is one thing that completely separates humans from animals. ... it is long-term altruism. During a famine in Russia ... scientists guarded the seed bank of plant genetics so that future generations would have the benefits of genetic diversity in food crops. For the benefit of others, they allowed themselves to starve to death in a lab filled with grain. No animal would do this. Altruism exists in animals, but not to this degree."

"I do not believe that my profession is morally wrong. ... I do feel very strongly about treating animals humanely and with respect... the slaughter plant is much gentler than nature. Animals in the wild die from starvation, predators, or exposure.  ... Unfortunately, most people never observe the natural cycle of living and death. They do not realize that for one living thing to survive, another living thing must die."

"... People feed, shelter, and breed cattle and hogs, and in return the animals provide food and clothing. We must never abuse them, because that would break the ancient contract. We owe it to the animals to give them decent living conditions and a painless death."

"... I realized there can be a conflict between feeling and doing. Zen meditators may be able to achieve the perfect state of oneness with the universe, but they do not bring about reform and change in the world around them."

"I believe that the place where an animal dies is a sacred one."

"When I was in high school, I received a brochure from a cattle chute company that said, 'thoughts with no price tags.' "Men will wrangle for religion, write for it, fight for it, die for it, anything but live for it." I never forgot that quote."

It seems to me that if anyone on this planet truly lives for their beliefs, this woman does. How lucky we are, how blessed, to have her voice among us. How fortunate and how blessed are the animals into whose lives and deaths she has brought gentleness and peace.

More links here.

[Edit in: I have a large personal debt of gratitude to Dr. Grandin, which motivates this post. Because of a congenital enzyme deficiency, I am unable to thrive on a vegan diet. I must eat meat, and this fact has tormented me for years.

Knowing that she has been working to give the animals a peaceful and truly humane end, knowing that she has redesigned approximately one third of all the facilities in the US to achieve this purpose, and knowing that this has been true for most of my adult life, allows me to say grace over my meals with the sense that there truly has been 'grace' present in the process.]