A few years ago, when Mr P wasn't even in kindergarten yet, we rode our bikes to the river and walked out on the public dock, where we found a father and son fishing. They'd already had some luck and the dad was sawing fillets off these little fish, gills still flapping, eyes still staring, mouths still trying to open and shut. Having cut the flesh roughly away from both sides of the spine, he dropped each twitching skeleton casually back into the water, to the darkness and the crabs.
I felt queasy.
I'd fished as a child, sure, but we kept our catch in a bucket full of sea water, watching with mingled interest and sympathy as they quietly expired from lack of oxygen. Once, fresh water fishing from a row boat with friends, there'd been an argument between the dads whether a quick bash to the head was more humane than slow suffocation. Which side won, I can't remember, but the point is that I didn't know anyone who would carve the living flesh off a creature without the mercy of killing it first.
I didn't say anything at the dock, though, telling myself they're just fish, and going to be dead soon either way, and surely a father fishing with his son deserves to be left alone to treat his catch as he sees fit, and what do I know about the nervous system of a fish, anyway. So I exchanged a few polite pleasantries with the live filleter, hoping Mr. P just wouldn't notice what was happening, or wouldn't care, and trying to ignore it myself.
But Mr. P did notice. And he was horrified.
I don't remember exactly what he said to me or even whether the man heard him, but I remember the way my son shrank into himself, the shock and confusion that made him whisper instead of shout that it must be hurting them. And I remember telling him he was wrong.
"They're dead already, hon," I said, "They can't feel it."
I knew it was a lie, and I think he knew it, too. But I made him doubt. Whether he doubted his own eyes or my honesty or just my intelligence, I'm not sure.
I think about this little moment fairly often, whenever I look away from suffering because I don't want to see it. Whenever I find myself saying things that can only be meant to help the people around me construct and reinforce the fiction that the suffering isn't real, isn't as bad as it looks, or at least was probably somehow deserved and certainly can't be helped.
I remember that dock, the heat and the dancing water throwing shards of blazing sun into my squinting eyes while I lied to my son about the truth of the world. And I let myself feel ashamed.
But I wonder, too. I wonder about the rare people who physically feel any sensation they witness happening to someone else. Lucky I don't have that. And I wonder about sociopaths, unable to feel empathy for others, who think themselves lucky to have escaped the burden of "useless" emotional pain. I wonder where do the rest of us lie scattered on the spectrum in between and what purpose does all this variation serve?
I'm sure I used to think sensitivity was a measure of goodness. The more empathy you naturally felt, and the wider the circle of living creatures for whom you felt it, the better a person you must be.
I don't quite think that's how it works anymore. Maybe, after all, the most sensitive among us most often just look away. But I do agree that, if nothing else, we'd better not trust anyone goading us to shrink our circle of empathy or discount the suffering we see. And we'd better feel ashamed, and let shame make us stop, when we realize that charlatan is us.