Dexter is a young horse who came to Poplar Spring just a few short weeks ago. He was skinny, covered in bug bites, had evidence of old injuries to both his back and his eye, and he is only 18 months old. His head looks impossibly tiny to me – I haven’t been around a young horse in a very long time. He is barely taller than I am, and I’m nowhere near tall. Terry reminds me that he’s just a baby…
A coworker asked me today how “the animals” were doing. I was fairly certain he was asking about the sanctuary. We’d talked about it once before, which I only remembered later. When he asked if any new animals had arrived, I was certain we were on the same page, and I told him a little about Dexter.
And when I say “a little”, I mean I barely told him anything at all – that he came to PSAS a few weeks ago, that he had evidence of eye and back injuries, and that he was 18 months old – before my coworker got upset and started walking away saying “no, don’t tell me any more, I can’t stand to hear about people being cruel to animals.”
That’s when I remembered; he had the same reaction the last time we talked about the sanctuary, and considering the atmosphere at work, where we’re repeatedly told to discuss nothing that might upset someone else (translation: discuss nothing that isn’t widely accepted in the mainstream; in other words, hunting and bbq are acceptable topics, but veganism is not and the realities of animal exploitation is definitely not), I certainly was sharing almost none of the reality. And it upset him anyway, to the point he had to walk away.
I can’t remember every detail of today’s conversation; mostly I remember that I had a lot of long silences filled with everything I didn’t feel I could say at work, and that my silences seemed to say more to him than my words did. And though reading my quasi transcript of our conversation looks like it was confrontational, it wasn’t actually. I suppose tone of voice isn’t easy to convey in written form, but I made it a point to be gentle in my spoken tone.
Here’s how it went:
When I pointed out that he was part of the process (of harming animals) that he said he hated, he immediately denied it.
“I don’t eat horsemeat.”
“I’m very grateful for the people who work in the slaughterhouse. I could never do it myself.”
[very loud silence]
“I’m a meat eater and I am proud of it!”
Finally I found some actual words, “I just don’t understand the disconnect. You are practically in tears [he'd told me previously] hearing about a horse who survived, but when it comes to other animals…”
“I’m a hypocrite,” was his response as he walked down the hall, headed towards a meeting we were both almost late for. “You win!”
“It’s not about winning…”
This particular coworker is not one I would have picked out of the crowd as someone remotely open to veganism, and of course at this point I doubt he is. But his compassion, his emotions, are real. He’s in his 50’s, at my best guess, not exactly of the generation raised to be “in touch” with his feelings, and yet with hardly any description at all, and certainly barely a hint of what any of the animals have gone through before arriving at the sanctuary, he is quite literally almost crying.
The first conversation, around a month ago, probably took him by surprise. It started with the standard question of “what did you do this weekend,” and I ended up talking about the sanctuary in more detail primarily because he was mis-understanding, thinking I was talking about one of the areas along the Potomic River that is a “wildlife refuge” (not that such designation ever stops the animal exploitation, but that’s a different topic altogether). He definitely didn’t approach me for that conversation.
But this one, this was one he instigated. He asked first if I had been to the sanctuary, and then asked how they were handling the weather (it’s been a hot summer!), and then he asked if any new animals had arrived. He knew in asking this that any new arrival would have a heart-wrenching story, but I can only conclude that the sanctuary and its residents have been on his mind.
I don’t know if I handled our conversation very well this afternoon. There are likely ways I could have talked about it with him that wouldn’t have ended with him accusing himself of being a hypocrite. Not that this isn’t an accurate assessment, and not that it isn’t something that can be quite powerful (it is what got me to go vegetarian way back when), but I have a feeling it simply put him more on the defensive than he was before.
At the same time, it’s sort of awesome to have seen how little I needed to say overall…the conversation was mostly him, and his reactions to my silence.
This is, as ever, one of the most frustrating aspects of advocacy. Our impact, if we had any, might not be visible for a while. Maybe not even until after our lives no longer connect. Even if we see a positive change, it is hard to know for certain what was our influence, or which of our conversations contributed in a positive way.
There just is no formula. Everyone is different, bringing their own life experiences and their own personalities to the table, and it makes advocacy something of an improv performance. Except harder – we can see the reaction of our audience, but we don’t really know how well we did for a long time, if ever.