Extending our Circle of Compassion

February 11, 2013 | Tita

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It’s no secret among my friends and colleagues that I am an advocate for animals. I reflect this in my diet, wardrobe, hobbies -- my whole life really. But I’m always surprised when some people then surmise that I don’t care about humans, as if compassion were a limited entity and if you care about animals, then you probably don't care about humans. My personal experience does not bear this out. And in fact, there are many authors and social reformers, both historical and contemporary, who have extended their circle of compassion to include all sentient beings.

Lesli Bisgould is this month's participant in Who's Reading What?

Lesli Bisgould, the author of this month’s Who’s Reading What? booklist, is a perfect exampleA regular feature on the library website, Who’s Reading What? asks ordinary Torontonians what books they’ve enjoyed and why -- we’ve asked for reading lists from authors and actors, columnists and creative directors, playwrights and physicians (and one cat). Not surprisingly, their lists usually mirror their interests, which are often wide-ranging. Lesli’s list reflects her work (she’s a lawyer, working full-time in the field of poverty and human rights) and her interests (she is an animal advocate and has written the only Canadian legal text on animals and the law) but it also reflects her concern for women and girls; and for Holocaust survivors and anti-Semitism.

Lesli is in good company. There could be no better example of a historical figure who personified compassion for both animals and humans than Mahatma Gandhi. His life was an endless struggle on behalf of the poor, women, the ‘untouchables’ and animals -- the latter reflected in his vegetarian lifestyle. Designated as one of the '100 Best Spiritual Books of the 20th Century' his book, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, outlines his quest for civil rights and non-violence toward all creatures.

Gandhi was heavily influenced by another early social reformer and writer, Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy was known for advocating for non-violent resistance as a tool for social reform with regard to the treatment of humans and other animals. A book of his essays, Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoycontains essays on topics as diverse as social justice, pacifism and vegetarianism (the latter in 'The First Step' essay). Many of his short stories embody similar messages.

Nobel prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote numerous novels, children's books, memoirs and articles, but is best known for his short stories. He wrote about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust but also about vegetarianism saying, “I did not become a vegetarian for my health, I did it for the health of the chickens.” In the “The Letter Writer”, one story in Collected Stories: Gimpel the Fool to the Letter Writer , he writes “In relation to (animals), all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.” And elsewhere, “As long as people will shed the blood of innocent creatures there can be no peace, no liberty, no harmony between people. Slaughter and justice cannot dwell together.”

George Bernard Shaw was a playwright, essayist and author of many short stories but he was also a humanitarian concerned about social problems such as sexism and classism. After becoming a vegetarian at age 25, stating “A man of my spiritual intensity does not eat corpses”, he often advocated for vegetarianism in his writing, as in the preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma (also available in audiobook).

Another advocate of social justice for the "lower classes", Percy Bysshe Shelle argued for the rights of all living beings. Tesla, Einstein, DaVinci, Voltaire, Jeremy Bentham, Kafka, Plutarch, Plythagoras, Charles Darwin, Albert Schweitzer and Henry Thoreau expressed similar sentiments.

     Coetzee Milan Night
And many contemporary authors support the need to extend our circle of compassion to those who have no voice -- think  J.M. Coetzee, Milan Kundera, Elie Wiesel, Alice Walker, Allen Ginsberg, Deepak Chopra, Jane Goodall, Piers Anthony, V.S.Naipaul and Ruth Rendell to name a few. Clearly, compassion does not have to be measured out carefully like money or time. Compassion often begets compassion, surely making the world a better place for us all.