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Healing Anger, Nurturing Compassion By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.
How to Avoid ‘Burning Out’ as an Activist

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Healing Anger, Nurturing Compassion By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

You see a picture of a hunter gloating over a deer’s corpse, and you find yourself enraged by his callousness and selfishness. You wish evil to befall this stranger, but you can do nothing and feel frustrated and impotent. This typical scenario illustrates the disabling effects of anger, a very unpleasant feeling that contributes to activists' "burn-out." Many activists, overwhelmed by their anger and frustration, withdraw from the movement. Others find that anger directly undermines their core message of love and compassion.

After enthusiastically embracing activism for a few months or years, many friends of animals drop out of sight. While anger may initially inspire spirited activism, it can lead to crippling frustration and disillusionment when people find that their dedicated, self-sacrificing labors often have little direct impact on animals.

Activists’ anger can also compromise efforts to protect animals from human abuse. When we feel angry, we generally express hostility, which is very alienating. People respond defensively to expressions of anger, becoming unreceptive to new ideas. Although compassion for animals often motivates animal advocates, the public often perceives activists as angry and misanthropic.

Healing Anger

Healing our anger, then, is an important component of effective, long-term animal advocacy. First, we must take responsibility for our own anger. It is tempting, and commonplace, to blame other people for our own anger, since others' actions often initiate the feeling. However, only we control how we respond to the world's injustices. While we can't eliminate suffering and victimization, we can affect how we respond to these tragedies.

Second, we must understand anger's dynamics. Anger is a natural state among humans and nonhumans that results from feeling helpless in the face of frustrated desires. We desire a world in which innocent individuals are treated respectfully, and our inability to stop injustices makes us feel frustrated and helpless. As psychiatrist Ron Leifer explains, "when we are angry we are striving and straining to deny our helplessness and to assert its opposite--a sense of mastery, or might, or macho.”

Third, we must reflect on our anger and recognize our feelings of frustration and helplessness. This can be difficult during a heated encounter, and generally requires solitude and calm. Then, we may consider how to manage our anger. It is helpful to contemplate the Serenity Prayer for "the courage to change what I can, the serenity to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Relaxation exercises can quiet strong emotions. For example, you can focus on each muscle group from the toes to the scalp. Mentally name each muscle group as you tighten and then slowly relax each group. Visualize the gradual muscle relaxation. After practicing this, envision situations that induce anger and focus on your feelings of helplessness while relaxing the muscles. This reverses the normal, unpleasant physical response to anger in which the muscles tighten. When applied during normally frustrating situations, including encounters with animal abusers, this maneuver reduces anger and provides a greater sense of calm. Meditation can also relax an agitated mind; several writers, including the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, have elaborated on meditation such techniques as breathing, walking, and mental exercises.

Related to meditation, one may find a quiet, preferably outdoors place, breathe slowly and deeply, and consider nature's mysteries with wonder and awe. Even though many creatures suffer in nature, we may still appreciate nature's beauty and, I believe, life-giving goodness.

When our anger is tempered, we find more room for compassion. We may even discover that our compassion extends to victimizers, as well as their victims. This reduces our anger even further. Remember that people who victimize nonhumans also alienate themselves from the nonhuman world, which is spiritually and psychologically painful. Imagine if, upon seeing a beautiful duck flying overhead, you felt a desire to kill rather than wonder and love. This destructive, violent attitude would greatly undermine your enjoyment of and communion with nature. I think we should have compassion for people with such alienating feelings, even though the harm they visit upon others often greatly exceeds their own spiritual suffering.

We may feel compassion for those who contribute to animal victimization when we recall that most of us were once like them--eating and wearing animals. Moreover, we cannot avoid harming animals, no matter how careful we are. For example, our tax dollars support vivisection, our cars contain animal products, and our homes displace other animals. Given our inevitable complicity in animal exploitation, we may see animal liberation as a goal for all humanity, with some of us more on the path to peace than others.

Some people strike us as totally insensitive to animal mistreatment. Yet, there are good reasons for us to give these people the benefit of the doubt and believe that they have the potential to feel and express compassion. For example, many opponents of racism were once racists themselves. John Newton, who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was an Anglican priest who, much to his regret, had once been a slave trafficker. While we should not waste excessive time with people who seem totally uncaring, it is my experience as a physician and in other social interactions that the most unpleasant people are often the saddest and/or most frightened. If we could reach their hearts, we would likely find some goodness.

Communicating Compassion

How do we communicate genuinely felt compassion? We gain insight from the salespeople’s dictum, “People will forget a lot of what you say and some of what you do, but people will never, ever forget how you made them feel.” In order to avoid appearing condescending or judgmental, it helps to preface factual information with, "Many people don't know that . . ." Or, for concepts, "Few people have thought about . . ."

Similarly, when we attribute motives to people’s beliefs or actions, we are almost always partly or totally wrong and we are almost always received as offensive. When we claim that others’ attitudes and actions are due to selfishness, racism, sexism, speciesism, etc., we make them defensive and unreceptive to our message. For example, impugning vivisectors as interested only in money fails, I think, to appreciate their other motivations and serves only to anger vivisectors and their families, friends, and supporters. I suggest that we focus on the victims, not the victimizers, exposing the cruelties animals suffer and defending their right to respectful treatment. When talking about industries or institutions, on the other hand, mentioning motivations may be appropriate. For example, we might say, “Corporations exist to make money . . .”

Many people believe that animal liberation threatens their lifestyle or self-image. They frequently try to avoid the message by accusing the messenger of hypocrisy or self-righteousness. When we present ourselves as consistent and humble, we undermine such reactions to our activism.

A compassionate, non-threatening, non-judgmental communication style is to relate personal experiences with an "I felt . . . I found . . . I find" triad. For example, "I once felt there was nothing wrong with eating meat. Then, I found out about factory farming's terrible treatment of animals, and now I find that I can relate more closely and fully to animals and nature knowing that my diet minimizes animal suffering." Stories about humans who have helped nonhuman animals and vice-versa and accounts that demonstrate animals’ emotions promote compassionate attitudes without threatening listeners.

When we share information and experiences in mutual, student-to-student interactions, rather than engage in condescending teacher-to-student interactions, we are generally better received, and we may learn valuable lessons. Listen attentively to the other’s concerns and arguments, and repeat them with different words. This confirms that you are listening and validates that their comments have value. For example, you might say, “So, you’re saying that eating meat is necessary for good health. Many people feel that way. Actually, there are many lifelong, healthy vegetarians, and their risk of heart disease and certain cancers is reduced.” In addition, when we engage in conversations, rather than preach, we can gain valuable insights, such as finding ways to further reduce harm to humans and nonhumans, or becoming better activists by gaining deeper understanding of the cultural barriers to animal liberation.

Conclusion

Nearly all religions teach that humans fundamentally need a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and that this derives from compassion and service, not greed and destructiveness. As such, animal liberation can be a wonderful gift, providing animal advocates with a greater sense of direction and inner peace. However, the frustration that frequently accompanies animal advocacy often results in debilitating anger. If we can manage our anger effectively, we will gain the benefits of nonviolent living, find ourselves better suited to long-term animal protectionism, and become more effective as animal defenders.

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.
President of Vegetarian Advocates and Co-chair of the Christian Vegetarian Association
[Originally published in The Animals' Agenda, Jan/Feb 2001]