I floated lazily downstream on a makeshift raft I had created, the hot afternoon sun tanning my young skin, bees buzzing the honeysuckle that grew along its banks, a green-eyed dragonfly hovering before my hand-shielded face. There weren’t any other sounds for miles, just the running water emptying into tranquil pools that slowed the raft and spun it slowly before picking up a mesmerizing speed again in the shallows. Overhead, the sky was cloudless and translucent blue. My thoughts were lost in its vastness. Only my heel touching the lukewarm water brought me back to Earth.
I had that memory last night, watching television: how different it was from the reality of another world. Children, as young as I was then, scrambled for footing on the muddied banks of a Faroese island, grappling with their elders for the ropes that had caught a pilot whale in his death throes. The animal, groaning in agony, his head gruesomely severed behind the blowhole, thrashed violently in the blood-tainted waters, among his dead and dying companions, but to no avail.
And my heart broke again, as it had done decades earlier, watching a seal pup writhe in the blood-splattered snow beneath the sealer’s weighted boot.
As strong as I am—and after two decades, I think sometimes I am too strong, too casual about it, too proud that I’m able to endure the death of another; be motivated by it, I mean, and put in another day on behalf of death and dying—I am still moved, still heartbroken and sickened (dear god, am I sickened) with the empathy I felt with that one and single and solitary being in the throes of dying.
I could have turned the channel. It would have been that easy. I could have muted the sound, thanks to remote control, and shut out his screaming, the way only a whale can scream. But I couldn’t. I’d be damned if that animal died alone; to turn away would have made me as guilty as if my own hands were on the ropes that held that dying creature at bay.
It’s a long way from lazy raft rides in the neighborhood creek bed. My heel touching the lukewarm water today would only bring painful visions of blood-red seas—this, the price of enlightenment.
We who work for the lives of others live in the shadow of the death of others. This is our way, not by choice, but by demand. Better to have a wounded heart, a sick and hurting heart, than to have no heart at all, to feel for nothing, to care for no one, to live for death.
The world is ailing. Every morning when we awaken, there is a whale thrashing, a monkey screaming, a lone wolf howling, in the back of our minds. There is no escape from enlightenment, from truth, no escape from what lies beyond the morning sparrow’s song—not for us, those of us who work for the lives of others.
But shut our eyes? We cannot. Wish that we could? We would not. We know healing and change begin with the truth. And the truth begins with a broken heart.
Keep fighting the good fight.