This weekend I was scrolling through the video playlist on a field biology site I like to visit when I came upon a warning, “Elephant Calf Eaten Alive by Lions: Not For Sensitive Viewers.” I make myself watch these videos for two reasons: First, I have the irrational need to convince myself that it is not as bad as I fear, and second, because my father once told me that if one loves the world, one must love it with open eyes, accepting its horror as well as its beauty. I had briefly wanted to be a field biologist and my father told me a scientist must never turn away.
As to the latter, I did not turn away. As for the former, it was, as always, worse than I feared. The young elephant calf was just a bit too big for the lions to kill with a bite to the neck. It kept trying to get up and failing. The lions grabbed at its knees, trunk, and finally its softer parts, as it screamed for its mother again and again, an agonized trumpeting call that the fieldworker, when interviewed, said she heard echoing in her ears over the next three days as she edited the footage back at base camp. They’d been on “team Lion” she said, they’d followed them for months. There was a drought, their usual food, Cape Buffalo, hadn’t arrived, the pride was losing cubs — cubs the researchers had seen playing and tumbling in the long grass. At first the researchers were just glad the lions had landed some protein. It took the calf an hour and half to die, she said, adding “It was in so much pain.”
In the face of this kind of horror it is hard to believe in a higher power, a force of mercy and grace moving through the universe. It is easy to conclude that we are alone, entirely, that all sentience is merely a random occurrence and not a very long one at that. How could there be anything at all but cold facts in a universe where such a thing not only happens, but happens frequently.
I’d had enough of animals and clicked on Docu-Planet, all documentaries, all the time: It offered an animated graphic rendering of an interview with a woman who’d been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. In well-rendered deep focus panels, she described watching her husband hacked to death and being forced to cook and eat his right arm.
In more current news, a Sunni Muslim boy was beheading a Shia Muslim boy. The Sunni was 12, the Shia was screaming…. even after it seemed his vocal chords must have been cut. A voice announced it was the will of something called Allah in arabic and God in english. Switching to the local station I was regaled with the side of a fascist gathering led by a billionaire sneering from underneath what looked like a helmet made of hairspray and lemon pudding. He was working them up to a boisterous pitch, putting the blame for their lack of happiness and excess of worry squarely on the heads of brown-eyed, brown-skinned people. Immigrants and terrorists were ruining the quality of American life in New Hampshire…The Granite State. The crowd, many of whom probably had never seen an actual brown-skinned person in their lives, roared. I’d seen their expressions before, the aggrieved grins, the faces of people in old postcards, Greetings from The Lynching…. standing around the burned body, their eyes alight with flames and the sentiment of how good it was to at once destroy a black body and hell yeah, shock any panty waisted effete Northern liberal that might be looking at the postcard and getting his delicate sensibilities all in a twist, frigging hipster, go back to Portlandia and eat some tofu.
At this point, it had nothing to do with open eyes. It had to do with who has the right to look away when there are people who can’t get away.
When I finally logged off, I was thinking about speciation, how we evolved into something so… rococco… so bizarre compared to every other life form. What is it about us? The only thing I could come up with was this:
Non human animals are innocent of knowledge; they do not understand that their food is alive, capable of suffering. We on the other hand are innocent of nothing. It wasn’t getting knowledge that cast us out, it was choosing to ignore it once we got it.
If there was any numinous power at work in the cosmos I thought, it wasn’t the good kind.
It was one of those Sunday nights, in other words, where it seemed less crazy to believe in the Devil than in God. Life seemed, as someone said, nasty, brutal and short. Short, above all. “Born a-stride a grave” wrote Samuel Beckett, “the light glimmers for an instant and is gone”.
Normally when confronted with this kind of existential despair I do what most philosophers do in the same circumstance; eat a hearty dinner and retire to bed precisely as if I were not confronted by cosmic despair. Existential despair — existential anything really — has never induced a human action outside perhaps, that of representing said existential state in words, music, or some form of — probably — modern dance. But maybe it was because it was the first Sunday of the year and I could already see the daylight spinning minutes on the cold blue rolling axis, I thought of the word short. The days were getting longer, but life was staying short. And that might be the saving grace of it, if I chose to believe in what’s after all only one unprovable hypothesis among many.
God, if God exists, is long. If God is, God is in, and made of, eternity. Time is the one thing that can not be run out of. It goes on forever both ways. Behind this second the past stretches forever. Same thing ahead, the future goes on forever. We are always right in the middle, between two equidistant eternities. Now imagine God — a force for light, mercy, joy, vibrance — that not only can understand this absurd time scale, but is made of it. Then all our horror, our Killing Fields and Bergen Belsens, don’t even last a parsec. Our sobbing cries of pain and betrayal pass across time like an expression on the face of a toddler who thinks it’s going to cry for the feathery ghost of a moment, but then is distracted by something, maybe it sees a watery prism leaping through beveled glass onto a whitewashed adobe wall. Our whole life’s nothing but a stutter step before regaining our balance.
Today, I won’t ask if that can be true. I won’t question neurology and where the electricity goes that makes up the tower of memories and moments that we are. I won’t ask how we can see the face of god without a functioning occipital lobe, let alone eyes. I will assume the self is not made of the red juicy stuff of the body. I will believe that we will dive and surf through the rollers of time, like dolphins made of silver light. Today, let’s agree for the sake of it that a higher power is just that, a power that will scoop us higher, hold us like a translucent green wave, always rolling, cresting, breaking only to reform so we can keep splashing and tumbling. I’ve seen footage of a baby elephant on the beach, too, seeing the ocean for the first time. She spun her trunk around like a crazy pinwheel and then tried to see if she could stand on her head in the bay, ran back and forth, trumpeting frantic unstoppable gales of joyful noise. That’s as true as the other, so there must be at least a chance that what I suspect moves in a chain through us, this leaping playful mystery, is real and is more that just what is, more than just what happens, more than just us.
To be sane is quite often to be uncertain, but sometimes I can look at the faces around me, or even just my wind scraped view of the Long Island Sound the friendly blinking of loading dock lights switching on at six thirty and I can say a prayer for everyone who died screaming.
Emily Roiphe Carter is a writer living on the East Coast.