Friday, April 13, 2007

Converting Empathy Overload Into Passion for Compassion

My problem with empathy overload is ongoing.

I avert my eyes when people devour flesh or eat products with eggs & dairy because it makes me want to scream at them. How can you not think and feel for the poor animals that live horrid lives of confinement, torture and painful slaughter just so you can have your steak, ham, turkey sandwich, roasted chicken, omelette or cheese?

People just can't seem to give up their taste for meat & dairy. Do they savour the pain & sadness inherent in each bite of flesh or sip of milk? I guess some let their tastebuds control their conscience or they just don't care enough to change or they just don't care. I think that it's interesting to note that sociopaths experience a limited range of human emotions which explain their lack of empathy for the suffering of others. Sociopaths can't imagine or feel the pain of others. Am I implying something in the juxtaposition of these thoughts? Well, I will just leave that implication heavy and hanging like guilt or like chickens who are shackled upside down by one leg along a conveyor belt before having their throats slit...

Last Saturday evening, Fcat & I attended the Farm Sancuary charity event. I had been tired from the week and was feeling so overwhelmed that I hadn't been so excited by the propects of having any plans that evening, but it ended being exactly what I needed- a nice event for a great cause, surrounded by people who can truly empathize for the suffering of animals and choose not to eat meat with conviction.

The event was held at Jivamukti downtown. When we arrived, it was extremely crowded and the flow of the event was not properly coordinated. Since it was a yoga studio, we had all been advised in advance that our shoes would have to be removed- you can imagine what it was like, all these people stooped over to remove their shoes. I keep thinking of that episode of Sex & The City where Samantha gets her Manolo Blahniks stolen at a friend's house when they all remove their shoes before entering. I make sure to tuck our shoes into a hidden back corner.

This was the main room where all the food & drink was. Funny to think of all these people in the room in their socks- wasn't so funny when I stepped on a little piece of squishy food- yuck.
When there is a crowd and there are jostling lines for food, even compassionate vegan brains take on a whole other hardwiring....feeding frenzy!

Was a difficult balance, wine in one hand, camera in the other & Fcat holding our shared food plate because I was adamant about getting as many food pics as I could in that crazy crowd. I didn't get as many pics as I wanted and I didn't get a full description, but enough to give a sense that there was lots of food to be had.

First, Sheese & crackers. Had heard about this Sheese before and was anxious to try it. Didn't love it, but many did. One guy was just filling up a small bowl of Sheese with his fingers and eating at the same time and telling me how great it was, maybe that made it less appetizing to me.

Voracious eaters had descended on this sushi platter:

Polenta thing from Angelica Kitchen:

And toast point things, also from Angelica Kitchen, alongside their cookbook:

Wrap thing from Counter:Scary chicken legs-I think these might have been from Red Bamboo, complete with 'skin' and 'drumstick'. Tasty, but made me slightly ill because they were a little too realistic. Why couldn't they just make them medallions or nugget shaped? Well, certainly a good thing for those just turning veg and having cravings for meat and such...

This was super tasty seitan satay from Candle Cafe:And then onto desserts from Purely Decadent:
There was also vegan cheesecake and the yummiest cutest vegan chocolate farm cake with a layer of berry cream filling from the nicest people at Moo-Cluck Corp:
There's was a break from stuffing our faces, when we were all ushered into another room. As we were walking over, Fcat spotted Martina Navratilova. He's a huge fan and the first thing he he directed at her was a question about her veg diet at the height of her career. She was very gracious and responded by saying that she used to eat eggs as her main source of protein, but had gotten very ill- so had recently started eating fish again. I was a bit disappointed in her response, but it was really great that she was at this super-packed event after some recent knee surgery to show her support.

We all sat on the floor as our hosts from Jivamukti Yoga , Farm Sanctuary & Russell Simmons made wonderful impassioned speeches about animal liberation and the progress made. I felt a sense of warmth, belonging and hope. Don't know how to explain it- I was just so happy to be there in that very moment with the sense that I was surrounded by those who also cared. We were all in this room because of our shared compassion for animals.

Then they announced the screening of a short presentation about foie gras. A sense of dread overcame me, I knew I didn't want to watch the cruelty- others felt the same. Then we were told that of course, this was like preaching to the choir-none of us would eat foie gras, but we were asked to watch so that we would be so outraged that we would be renewed in purpose to speak out for those that have no voice.

I watched with horror as image after image of rows of ducks in wire contraptions lined up next to each other with their head & necks sticking out- so that the person could come by and shove the metal feeding tubes down their gullets to force feed them. Please visit this site and watch the video at It brought tears to my eyes and at times, I had to look away. It was painful to watch and to listen about this culinary cruelty. The metal tubes are not smooth- they have rough edges. The ducks attempt to push away the metal tube with their wings and feet but are unable to because they are so sick from having their livers swell up 10 times their normal size. This force-feeding lasts a couple of weeks until the ducks & geese succumb to their fatty liver and die. Oh yes, what a delicacy.

There were tons of great stuff for auction from jewelry to art to massages & bodycare baskets:

Here's Fcat looking so handsome with our goody bags ready to go:

Said contents of fun party goody bags- cream samples, food samples, calendars, magazines, etc.
Booboo not included.
Evening in NYC upon leaving the benefit, the city seems filled with possibility because I know that I have just left an event packed with people who have as much empathy for animals as I do. There are so many of you out there who love animals and who would never dream of wearing fur and are against animal testing, well then follow through with conviction and stop eating meat & dairy. I leave this event with a lesson- whenever I feel anger because of my empathy overload for animals, I must replace it with compassion. One person living their life with compassion for all living beings may inspire others to do the same even if it is just one person at a time.


KleoPatra said...

WOW! So much to take in... you are such a caring, compassionate soul. And i thank you for being just that way. All that food at that fab FS event looks SO amazing. i <3 Farm Sanctuary so so so so so much!!! Meeting Martina must've been mega-cool. Russell Simmons, too. HOW COOL IS THAT? More strong voices for veganism!

i also can't handle seeing peeps eating animals... it's very difficult for me, and it has been for more than 20 years and it never seems to get easier...

And how you end this post:

"... an event packed with people who have as much empathy for animals as I do. There are so many of you out there who love animals and who would never dream of wearing fur and are against animal testing, well then follow through with conviction and stop eating meat & dairy. I leave this event with a lesson - whenever I feel anger because of my empathy overload for animals, I must replace it with compassion. One person living their life with compassion for all living beings may inspire others to do the same even if it is just one person at a time."

AMEN. And amen again.

Vincent Guihan said...

The polenta looks great -- never thought of it as an hors d'ouvres, but looks fabulous.

KleoPatra said...

And P.S. BooBoo is so cute with all yer freebie there. Nice photo, VKO!

Village Vegan said...

I really enjoyed reading about your experiences at the animal benefit dinner. The food looks really, really yummy...even though it's kind of sad that there is a need for such dinners to be held in the first place. I couldn't agree MORE about people who say they don't want to treat animals cruely/say they are doing their part for the environment/etc. but still meat and dairy and eggs. It makes me so angry sometimes, that people obviously don't think through the implications of their dietary choices, or just choose to ignore those implications if they do give it some thought. I don't want to be self-righteous because of my veganism, and I certainly don't want to force it on anyone, but I do wish more people would think about what they do.

But on a lighter note, I'm glad I'm not the only one who's feeling apathetic about cooking! I can't wait until it starts feeling like crazy were those snow flurries on Sunday?

springsandwells said...

Wow! There's so much in this post... so much to think about and respond to.

That Farm Sanctuary event looks like it was great - food, friendly faces, MARTINA!!, activism... Very nice. Even a super fun goodie bag.

Sharon Gannon and David Life (founders of Jivamukti Yoga School) are actually the people who gave me the final push into veganism. They are such wonderful and loving vegan activists.

One lovely quote from the Yoga Sutras that Sharon and David ALWAYS teach is this:
"When one can feel happiness for those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, joy for those who are virtuous, and indifference toward those who are wicked, then one will achieve steadiness of mind."
Regarding the ability to happy for others who are happy - they always stress that this includes instances in which you don't approve of the source of that happiness. They give this example: "Imagine we are taking a friend out to dinner and they are eating and enjoy their steak - can we find a way to celebrate their happiness?"

It has been very useful and interesting to me, especially with my omnivorous partner.

I have my moments of incredulousness and outrage... but I am generally more content these days to lead through an example of friendliness and ease. Although it took me a long time to arrive at that point.

I also find it especially helpful to remind myself things like:
- Even after I became a vegetarian at age 14, I continued eating eggs and cheese and milk (a LOT) until age 27 or so. I loved animals very much, but I was ignorant of the facts.
- I am able to be healthy and happy as a vegan, but I also enjoy cooking, and have money to buy specialty foods. Many kind people I have spoken with really suffered on a vegan diet.
- Even though I am doing a lot to help the world and suffering through a vegan diet, there is still a lot of environmental and human suffering on this planet that I do very little about (the war, global poverty, racism, injustice, use florescent bulbs, buy a hybrid car, get involved in local politics, etc etc). Many of my family members have not chosen to become vegan, but are very involved in wonderful causes. They have probably looked at me - more than once - and wondered "why doesn't SHE do more about this cause that is so important to me?!"

So anyhow, those things help me avoid a state of rage and anger around veganism. Ultimately veganism can be a path of joy and love - and then people are really attracted to it!

sorry for such a long response!!

aTxVegn said...

What a wonderful and inspiring post. How nice that you got to attend this event with all the wonderful vegan food, and come away with a renewed spirit (and lots of goodies!). I don't think I could have looked up very often at the fois gras video.

Urban Vegan said...

Such a great event and benefit for a fabulous organization. The food looks amazing. I would have stuffed myself silly. FS is having an event in Philly at the end of the month, and I'd love to attend.

I also suffer from empathy overload. When I see stray animals, people eating meat, animal suffering videos/articles, people screaming at thier kids, walking by homeless people, etc--you name it. It's too much--I have to learn to be less emotional so I can be more helpful.

I just guess I don't understand how most people can accept being so far removed from their food sources.

laura jesser said...

Wow... what an event. I think it is awesome how constantly aware you are of the suffering that goes into every bite of meat or cheese or other things that so many "can't" give up. If more people had conviction like yours... I do have a very hard time watching people eat those things.

I would have had a hard time watching the foie gras video--I can't handle those sorts of things, and every time I attempt to watch one, I end up shutting my eyes.

I'm glad you went and shared your experience with us. Thank you for your caring and compassion--it's inspiring.

Neva Vegan said...

What a nice entry. It sounds like a beautiful event, for such a good cause, and the food was drool-worthy.

I get empathy overload all the time actually, and it requires some pulling back and regrouping.

It's not just sociopaths that don't feel empathy, but all personality disorders, though sociopaths are definitely the worst. I sadly had to learn this the hard way. Anyway the idea is personality disorder = you are an object. So it goes without saying that animals are objects to them as well.

What I find really hard to get are the people who claim to love animals but just turn off all empathy to any animals except a few pampered companion animals or a really cute baby animal at the zoo. I just don't know how to handle that sometimes.

bazu said...

What an event. I love the Jivamukti yoga studio and try to take a class or 2 there every time I'm in NYC. I'm glad the event was ultimately rewarding for you, even with emotional ups and downs. (thank you for your report and the photos!)

I know what you mean about empathy overload. I sometimes feel like a sponge for all the suffering I see around me- human and animal. It's hard to know what to do, where to start, but compassion is a great start, as you said. Now, how do we get the "other" 99% of people to come along??...

I love that picture of Booboo by the way- it looks like you got a kitty in your goodie bag! lol

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