Harambe The Gorilla: Compassion Is Not A Contest

The needless death of Harambe the gorilla deserves our sadness. By now, however, the news and commentary cycle has fallen into its consistent pattern. We saw the same with Cecil the lion. An unnecessary death hits the news and triggers an outpouring of sadness and outrage. Then, in come the commenters desperate to show they are somehow above it, above those of us who dare to grieve for an animal life. Why are some people so eager to use a murdered animal as a pretext for showing their moral superiority by stating concern for something supposedly more important? I don’t understand the underlying thinking.

As practitioners of kindness, as compassionate people, as basically ethical human beings, we can look at two situations and mourn for them both, each in their own sad terms, each acknowledged as such. Nothing in my grief for Harambe precludes my grief for refugees, my grief at unnecessary suffering and deaths inflicted on any living beings. In reality, our hearts enough capacity to hold compassion for all of this suffering and more. We don’t need to diminish one suffering to raise up another. We have enough kindness for all.

In addition to limiting our capacity for compassion, the pendulum swing points out the danger of a certain kind of moral reasoning. I firmly believe we must not appoint ourselves the arbiter of which suffering matters more than others. We don’t know, and when we pretend we do, we dismiss the grief and suffering of others. Scolding and policing other people’s compassion quickly leads to unkindness.

The kinder approach: let’s lift each other up, console each other, respect each other’s grief, and avoid the temptation of treating our compassion as a contest for who displays the most moral virtue. And let’s honor the victims of cruelty, be they human or animal, by acknowledging them in their own fullness, for their own sake, and in humble awareness for the value of all life.

Photo credit: Robert Streithorst