Reflections for the New Year
I get it.
I’m exhausted, too, depleted by a two-year pandemic that continues to outwit us, by political nonsense from the federal level down to our individual communities, by the growing gap between the extremely wealthy and everyone else, by the recognition that the window to change the trajectory of climate change is narrowing and each climate disaster is more terrifying than its predecessor. You know that I could go on.
But, does the convergence of these challenges give me permission to stick my head in the sand (or the snow, if it ever arrives) and stay there whistling Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy?”
Hence this essay, a sort of tough love “pep talk to self” as we enter a new year. I hope you find as much meaning in it as a reader as I do writing it. As we navigate these uncertain days, may we all summon the strength to carry on.
Relative to most beings, I occupy a place of enormous privilege on this planet. I’m healthy, financially stable, bright enough, have a wonderful community of friends and family, and feel safe in my home. I have never known hunger, never been unable to pay my bills, never been harmed or threatened due to my skin color or religion or gender expression or other identities. When I came into the world, I drew a long straw.
And then there’s my privilege relative to animals. In his influential book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, Matthew Scully examined the question of whether, in granting humans “dominion” over animals, God intended us to be their caretakers (one definition of the term), or their dominators (a second definition). It’s pretty clear what choice we’ve made: we hunt them, we eat them, we experiment on them, we grow them in cages to turn them into clothing and shoes and cosmetics and household and personal care products, we take their homes, the forests, away from them to make room to grow corn and soy to feed other animals (so we can eat more of them), we make them entertain us at racetracks and zoos, rodeos and circuses, we pollute their air and water in the name of profit, driving thousands of species into extinction. I’m just getting started here. I, for one, thank my lucky stars nearly every day to have been granted a human body.
In other words, even in these disturbing times, I am still among the luckiest alive. But in these days when it seems that the world is off its axis, I give myself permission to be, at times, exhausted, sad, overwhelmed, angry. Yet even in my darkest moments, there’s something I do not, will not, grant myself: the right to give up.
First, I’d be miserable; second, I’d be of no use whatsoever to the organization I lead; and third: if we quit—quit working our hardest for a kinder and more compassionate world for all—then where does that leave the rest of the world? If we give into our exhaustion, then the bad guys will win. I don’t want to live in a world where people like you and I have given up.
So I say to myself, “Stevens, Get a grip. The world needs your voice.” And then the tired me responds, “Can’t I just go live in a treehouse and eat mangoes?”
On most days, the activist me and the exhausted me meet in the middle, deciding that what I truly need is to take good care of myself…and then to carry on.
For me, the notion of “taking care of myself” means insisting that a morning routine of yoga and quiet reflection replace my default behavior: hopping out of bed, making a quick cup of coffee, and turning on the computer by 6 am. It means ending my work day at a reasonable-ish hour, shutting down the computer, picking up a book or calling a friend. It means time in nature every single day, for no matter the weather, nature is my church.
But more than any of the above, taking care of myself also means being present with, and for, the animals in my life. For my dog Scout, a black Lab, the world is the same as it’s always been. When we walk in the woods, or in an open meadow, she races after a stick like a bullet, or dives with utter abandon into a lake. She chews sticks down to tiny nubs, rolls over for belly rubs, and sure is happy when Dad walks in the door. My Pitbull Chumbley doesn’t listen to CNN or WAMC or read The New York Times. He doesn’t get frustrated because he’s been to Walgreens, CVS, and RiteAid, and Covid tests are nowhere to be found. Instead, when I walk in the door, he grabs a shoe and races in circles around the house, over the moon that Mama’s home. As soon as I sit, he’s in my lap, his paw placed gently on top of my hand.
Our companion animals, our beloved four-legged or feathered family members, make it easy to be fully present, and that’s when we are at our best. These moments with our beloveds ground us, center us, remind us of the vital role the play in our lives.
And then there are the animals who call Catskill Animal Sanctuary home. Just seeing Ferguson the sheep, my bovine child Tucker, gentle Jasmine the pig, Imogen the lap turkey, our two old blind Buddies, our beloved Underfoots roaming the grounds (and, if they’re goats, looking for trouble): these animals and so many more are a welcome salve for so many souls worn weary by the world. Not just mine. Ferguson, now five years old, lights up when he sees any one of his humans. As he strides eagerly towards us, he doesn’t need words, for what he’s saying—“I’m so happy to see you I just might burst”—is abundantly clear, and man, are we grateful for it. Pigs Mario and Audrey trot over to us when we call their names, wanting nothing more than connection with the humans they love. So, too, with scores of others—animals who, having known safety, comfort, and the touch of kind hands—trust CAS, trust humans. That trust allows them to love us, and that love, especially now, is what we sorely need.
It seems to me that in many ways, the animals are the ones who’ve got this thing called life right. And I believe that as we work our damndest to usher in a world in which animals are allowed to experience what we privileged humans take for granted, we can—we should—also learn from them. Take their reminders. Embrace their lessons. Not only should we look to them for companionship, solace, and love in its purest form…but also to silence the noise in our heads. The animals are absolutely clear about what truly matters in this life. It’s the simple things: sun on our faces. A friend to lean on. Good food. Hugs.
And so here’s another note to self: be present with, and for, the animals. It’s one of the best self-care strategies I know of, for in doing so, I get back what I give, in spades. And those gifts buoy me to take a deep breath, get a grip and carry on in service to a world in which all beings can experience what I’ve been privileged to know my entire life: safety, comfort, and love.
From that grounded and centered space (thank you, Ferguson, thank you, Tucker), I am reminded that for all the strife, good news…hopeful news, abounds. Real strides are being made…we just need to see them. For example, take a look at a tiny fraction of the progress made for animals in 2021:
- The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (the organization that certifies sanctuaries’ legitimacy and good practices across all aspects of their operation) certified 5 new farmed animal sanctuaries in 2021.
- Hundreds of farmed animal sanctuaries are now dotted across the globe, providing second chances to lucky animals once destined to be food, animals who in turn become game-changing ambassadors.
- Valentino and Oscar de la Renta both banned fur from their fashion lines.
- Eric Adams became NYC’s first vegan mayor.
- Virginia, Maine, and Hawaii passed laws banning the sales of cosmetic products that had experimented on animals.
- McDonald’s has started rolling out its “McPlant Burger” in the United States after positive feedback abroad.
- Sales of dairy-free milk were up 12% driven by a strong growth in oat milk and, to a lesser extent, almond milk.
- Veganuary, the vegan pledge program, started the year with more than 600,000 participants, the most in the organization’s brief seven-history.
- According to Bloomberg.com, in July 2021, U.S. sales of meat at grocery stores were down by more than 12% from a year ago.
For your support of two decades of game-changing work: thank you.
Happy New Year. Now get a grip, and let’s carry on.