Compassion- our strongest instinct

12 11 2022

I have just read Bittersweet by Susan Cain, an enquiry into the gentle art of being human. The book is a wide-ranging tour of people who live to the sound of music in a minor key.

I loved Susan Cain’s previous book Quiet and her Ted talk because she made a compelling case for the power of the introvert. Since reading her research I am more attuned to the needs of the quiet people, and have noticed how many people who love animals are natural introverts.

Animals, of course, are quiet. Their communication of subtle gestures is enthralling for that reason. The recent rain has meant working under cover and I have been drawn to simply observing the ponies at rest as they breathe from a place of deep relaxation. Such peace feels precious in our precarious world.

Quietness, stillness and being settled are also ideal conditions for compassion to flower. Compassion uses suffering as a kind of compost to bring into being one of the strongest instincts – to care when another is in pain.

Trevor is one of the Thompson Twins, a gorgeous pair of goats we have been gifted as therapy animals. Trevor needed some attention on his feet. Goats have hooves with horn that can grow and curl like Turkish slippers if not trimmed. We invited Trevor into the apple orchard for his pedicure. He was not exactly thrilled at the idea, but munching on some new branches helped him to relax. He gave us his feet and we did what we could.

At one point Trevor had really had enough of the trimming and wanted to return to his herd. We allowed him some space. Our pony Tinker who was observing the procedure from the gate leaned over as we asked Trevor for one more try. He found a spot and gave us a hoof. As we praised him, Tinker started to massage his back. Remarkably he leaned into her contact and relaxed.

Compassion among animals is simple and direct. They don’t need to think about whether they should help or not. Distress or suffering is enough to trigger a response. It is so moving to observe because there is such purity in being there for another especially when the other is someone who doesn’t even speak your language.

Watching Trevor and Tinker allowed a rare glimpse of compassion in its raw unfiltered state. How refreshing it would be if we could act so immediately without stopping to check if we had either the time or the space to give. Animals offer what they have without hesitation or reservation. In our natural state, before we became sophisticated super beings, we would have done so too.

What stops us feeling compassion is a sense that we are separate from everyone else, and so much of our lives contributes to that sense of isolation. Witness a busy road filled with cars containing a single person. We are driven beings who like to feel in control.

When an animal goes about his day he is never wrong. Imagine that. Imagine being free to act totally from natural instincts. Imagine knowing that this is how life works.

Animals don’t need control. They don’t need to be in the driving seat. They act with integrity, not from a moral sense, but because they are instinctively aware that they are whole beings heading somewhere with purpose. We can spend a lifetime just looking for a glimpse of that.

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