Franceen Neufeld on Joy

By Franceen Neufeld
Presented at Wishing Well Sanctuary, May 31, 2014

See also:
Visit to Wishing Well Sanctuary
Calvin Neufeld Introduces The Suffering Eyes Project

As many young people do, I went through depression as a teenager. I was attending university at the time, and I heard that a famous author would be giving a seminar. That gave me some hope – authors know something about happiness, don’t they? Maybe this author would have some wisdom that would help me. So when the time came to ask questions, I gathered up all my courage, and asked him, “Could you say something about happiness?” The author turned to the organizers of the event and said, “Doesn’t anyone here have anything intelligent to ask?”

Now, over 40 years later, I am an author, and I don’t think it’s stupid to ask about happiness. Suffering Eyes: A Chronicle of Awakening was a painful book to write, and it is a painful book to read. It is not a happy book. So now I want to ask that question about happiness again. In the face of all the suffering, is it possible to say anything about happiness?

Suffering Eyes begins and ends with words about happiness. In acknowledging the contributions of my son Calvin towards the creation of this book, I wrote: “This book is the legacy I want to leave to the world, for the alleviation of suffering and the cultivation of kindness. So the thanks that I owe to Calvin is for the greatest gift I could ever receive – the gift of my life being effective for goodness and mercy. And for happiness.”

It is probably easy to understand how this book can contribute to goodness and mercy in the world. But how can it possibly contribute towards happiness? In fact, I seem to deny it myself in the concluding words of my book. My final reflection is a farewell to my mother, to whom I dedicated this book, and who passed away of Alzheimer’s disease shortly after I wrote it. It is entitled “all I want” –

Every one of us longs for the happiness of those we love. When our loved ones are suffering, how can we ourselves find happiness? To me the problem seemed hopeless. I love these creatures and they are suffering – how can I ever be happy again? This is not a theoretical question, and I know I am not the only one to experience the anguish of it.

Here at Wishing Well Sanctuary, I have seen happiness. There is happiness here, it is in the air, it is in the smiles and the laughter, the tenderness and the love.

I have never been to a farmed animal sanctuary before today, and I used to hesitate even to read about them. Why would that be? I think it’s because in order to experience the happiness and goodness of places like this, I had to face something else first. And I was too afraid.

What am I afraid of? Surely, whatever I am afraid of, others must be afraid of too? Jewish philosopher George Steiner spent a lifetime thinking and writing about the Holocaust, yet he confessed that he could not write a book about animals because he “didn’t have the guts.”

You who work here in the sanctuary understand this. You know what you had to face to get to the happiness. You literally walked through hell to get here, and you have done it again and again and again – and you will keep on doing it. As you watch these beautiful souls restored to life and hope and trust, you don’t forget their stories, you remember so that you can tell us what happened to them and why they need us and what their brothers and sisters will continue to endure unless we rescue them. And because you let their suffering burn itself into your souls, you have been given the great gift of sharing in their happiness also, and more than happiness – all of it together, the grief, the longing, the rescue, the comfort, the new life, the happiness – all of these things together shape themselves into JOY. Because, here on the other side of hell, this IS where the joy is.

But how many of us actually get here? Because I can say with certainty where the joy is NOT. It is not in looking away from suffering because we don’t think we can bear to see it. It is not in hiding our eyes, our ears, our hearts from it, caring more about protecting ourselves from knowledge of their suffering, than we do about rescuing them from it. It is not in beginning the descent into awareness, and then panicking and running away from it towards our own “happy” place where we don’t have to think about them anymore. It is not in collapsing, lying down and going to sleep again, “retreat[ing] to the convenience of being overwhelmed” as David Rakoff put it. There is no joy there.

So why do we hide from the suffering, in a place of deliberate ignorance where fear controls us, and where there is no joy? I believe it is because we do not understand love, because we do not believe in it.

All my life, I was sure that I was an animal-lover. I “loved” them so much that I couldn’t look at their suffering. I HAD to turn away. I HAD to not see. And all the while I kept on participating in the infliction of their suffering by consuming their broken bodies! And I thought that was love?! But it wasn’t. Love doesn’t look like that.

When it finally began to dawn on me what love does look like, I resisted it with everything I had, as if my life depended on it, which in a sense it did. This reflection describes that experience. It is called “beginning somewhere” –

When I let my eyes look into theirs and see the suffering there, when I descended so deeply into that seeing, that their suffering became my suffering and their peace, my peace - that is when their rescue became for me urgent, imperative, desperate. And that was love.

And so when I began writing Suffering Eyes, I found myself compelled to go “right deep down into life… not caring a damn” as P.G. Wodehouse put it. I walked through my own hell, all the while knowing it was nothing compared to theirs. If I could do anything to save them, I would do it, whatever it cost me. That was love. And that’s when I stopped caring about my own happiness.

In the writing of my book, as I allowed life to come freely and unobstructed into my awareness, the griefs and longings and pain – even RAGE – spread into every nook and cranny of my life: sorrow over every broken body on the plates of those I love, agony for the truckloads of terrified captives passing by on their way to slaughter, rage and anguish for the beautiful creatures being brutalized before my eyes in the pornography of violence that I had to witness in order to write this book.

And as Calvin and I edited the book together, as we laboured over every word, as we hoped together for the power of every turn of phrase to make its way out into the world for rescue’s sake, that was love. And it was then that both of us began to be taken by surprise, because even in the midst of our tears, we experienced moments of joy breaking through the grief. How could that be?!

As I wrote the book, and as I allowed all of life to come freely and unobstructed into my awareness, the joys of living also spread into every nook and cranny of my life. Now I can read about Wishing Well’s residents, about Mitou and Smudge and Truffle and Trixie. Even Wally. I can share in their joy, because I do not have to hide my heart from what happened to them before they came here. I have experienced the grief and the joy living together, not cancelling each other out, not somehow diminishing each other. I am not left with something between the two, some grey area of numbness. As long as there is suffering in this world, and as long as there is love to respond to it, grief and joy must abide together.

But what do we do with the fear?  The fear of pain, the fear of grief, the fear that we may not be able to bear it? What if we are right, that facing the suffering will break us? I think there is something far more fearful than that, something that is happening everywhere always, one thing that is perpetuating the suffering. In our fear of pain, in our desire to protect our hearts, we are hardening them – we are making them ill, unable to respond as hearts are meant to do.

Hearts are meant to feel, and when they are well that’s what they do: in the forming of close relationships, healthy hearts feel love; in celebrating life, they feel joy; at the invasion of loss, they feel grief; towards the infliction of injustice, they feel anger. And in witnessing grievous suffering – healthy hearts break. Indifference to the suffering of others is a symptom of a sick and hardened heart, one that has lost the ability to love. As the Puritans said, a broken heart IS a healed heart. If this world is to heal, we must welcome the breaking of our hearts, not fear it.

I believe that the only way that we will ever welcome the breaking of our hearts, is when we stop being curved in on ourselves, as theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann put it, and learn to love somebody else. And the paradox is that when we begin to love somebody else, that is when we begin to find ourselves.

Love called me to write this book, though it was the most painful thing I have ever done. Today it is calling me to speak to you, though speaking in public is a frightening thing for me. I don’t know what love will call me to do tomorrow, but it doesn’t matter. Fear is irrelevant to love. The Bible has a wonderfully simple way of putting it: “love throws fear away.” When fear gets in the way of what love needs to do, love just tosses it aside. George MacDonald said that “only love is inexorable.” Love will stop at nothing to rescue those it loves, and love is the only thing with the power to do it. And that is, truly, where the joy is.

I find joy in the oddest places now. Walking near my house, I often see millipedes crossing the lane. When I can, I stop to help them to the other side, so that they won’t be crushed by the next passing car. And whenever I do that, I feel a tender surge of joy, as I feel myself connected not only with that little life, but also with all of life, “life giving itself to life” as the great Albert Schweitzer expressed it.

And love is contagious. I have seen it spread from generation to generation in my family. As I wrote in the dedication of my book, my mother’s compassion embraced all living creatures. My son is directing the Suffering Eyes Project which is dedicated to supporting farmed animal sanctuaries around the world. And last month, my granddaughter sent out an email just before her 10th birthday, saying: “I would like it if you would all NOT buy me presents. Because I would like for you all to send in money to the Animal Shelter.”

Love is the great unifying force in life. It not only links us together with all life, it not only travels from person to person and from one generation to another, it also has the power to tie together our greatest sorrows and our greatest joys.

My greatest sorrow - I was travelling along the highway on a blisteringly hot day two years ago. I stopped at a rest stop, and as I walked back to my car, I heard a baby crying. I turned to look. And that’s when I saw that it wasn’t a human baby, it was a truckload of pigs, and they were crying. The truck wasn’t moving, and they were piled layer upon layer, in the sweltering heat. And they were crying, just like a human baby’s cry. I had just finished reading a book about the Nazis rounding up Jews in Paris and packing them into trucks, and no one did anything to stop what was happening. And that’s what it felt like to me as I drove away. I did not help them. I let them suffer, I left them there, I knew how they were suffering, and where they were going, and I did not rescue them. I drove away. History has accused those others who looked on and did nothing, I accuse myself.

And that is why I have dedicated all the proceeds from this book to farmed animal sanctuaries. If I had had the courage to try to rescue those poor doomed and suffering creatures that day, what would I have done with them? Where would I have brought them? Who would have taken care of them?

And so I come to my moment of greatest joy. Two months ago, Calvin and I spent a day packing 450 of my books into boxes, to send free of charge to farmed animal sanctuaries across North America, for them to raise funds directly for their work. As we packed those boxes, it dawned on me that finally, in that moment, I was responding to what I had seen and heard that day at the rest stop. I can never atone for my betrayal of them - those individuals suffered and died in fear and in pain, and I did nothing to help them. I can’t change what happened to them. But at last I have found a way to do something for the lives who need me now. I used to wish to God that I had not seen what I saw that day. Now all I wish to God for is rescue.

I think of Yoda and Leia, two little piglets who fell off trucks and found their way here to Wishing Well Sanctuary. They are happy now, here. This is where the joy is, here in this place, and in sanctuaries all around the world where people with love in their hearts are fighting a war against suffering.

And with love in our hearts, wherever we are, it is our war too.

And in that devotion of our lives to the alleviation of suffering and the cultivation of kindness, there is all the joy we need.