Seeing the Animals
The size of an avocado, the red knot flies from the southern tip of the world to meet the horseshoe crab at precisely the week that ancient creature crawls from the waters of Delaware Bay to lay her eggs. Mother orangutans spend eight years teaching each child how to use leaves and twigs as tools for specific purposes and in ways unique to their community.
As the cave paintings at Lascaux testify, humans have a primal fascination with animals. Netflix launched its “most ambitious series ever undertaken” in April 2019. Reaching a global audience, Our Planet spectacularly shows in high-definition video the marvels of the world’s ecosystems and animals—and the looming threats to their existence. In the first month of its release, more British subscribers to Netflix watched it than any other program. In book form, Joel Sartore’s The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals was Amazon’s best-selling nature book of 2018.
Both Our Planet and The Photo Ark rose out of grief, the creators of each compelled to tell the darker side of animals’ stories. As most biologists have been saying for twenty years and a 2019 report from the U.N. underlined, Earth is undergoing its sixth mass extinction—species loss is that rapid. Animals are dying at a rate one hundred times faster, by the most conservative estimates, than at any time in Earth’s history, because of choices humans make every day.
At the same time, more and more people find they cannot separate their spiritual lives from their love of nature, including, or especially, animals. Those of us who identify as Christians perceive the suffering of creatures as the suffering of “the least of these,” Christ’s brothers and sisters.
Because the news about species loss is so dire, we can easily find ourselves paralyzed in despair or frenzied in social activism. Neither response embodies the metanoia, the changed seeing, that Jesus says identifies those who follow him. In fact, frenzy and despair both suffocate the growth of the more beautiful world Jesus announced. That world, which he called the Kingdom of God, spreads and grows through people whose view of things is like his.
How to see things as Jesus sees them? Beyond us, the Christ-mind, the Christ-vision, has to be given to us. And Jesus implores us—for the sake of our souls and the world—to seek it. How?
Story, art, and poetry, suggests Fr. Richard Rohr,
…can heal and create coherence, connection, and deep trust for the human psyche much better than prose that ‘tells it like it is.’ Their more alluring power gives room for the soul, mind, and heart to expand. Ironically, from such an open and creative stance, we can actually solve problems much more effectively.
Knowing this, Jesus told stories. Those stories are included in the story of his life, the Gospel, told by four different witnesses. Paul’s letters are his side of a story. The book of Revelation outdoes any other-world novel on the market. And all these storytellers were steeped in that spicy stew of stories and poems we call the Old Testament.
What if those of us in danger of despair or frenzy at the loss of our animal kin were to create stories, poems, pictures of them? Not a recitation of the grim facts, but a description of individuals and their experiences, including their experiences with humans, the terrifying ones and the tender, healing ones?
I don’t mean that we can know the inner experience of any creature. I mean that by giving close, not-self-interested attentiveness to individuals—whales or frogs or songbirds—attentiveness rooted in wonder, we may be surprised to find something more than suffering, even in the midst of suffering, something wild and elusive at loose in the world. And within us. A something that fills us with hope—and therefore the power to make truly creative changes, changes that create a world where all creatures can thrive.
By Gayle Boss