Traumatic Knowledge and Animal Exploitation: Part 2 The Need for Self Care

As I explain in Part 1, traumatic knowledge is the knowledge that a person has about the fate of the other animals. It is painful knowledge—knowledge about everyday practices and everyday sufferings. Traumatic knowledge makes us feel the suffering of animals acutely. It feels relentless. It does not provide relief but intensifies our emotional connections to animals.

Traumatic knowledge provokes crisis. We must take care of our bodies because each of our bodies is processing incredibly difficult, demanding, depressing information, and we must be careful and take care as we relate to others.

I often hear from young people who write to me about how one handles this experience of traumatic knowing. Recently, a young person wrote, “I struggle with knowing about so much of the pain in the world, that animals endure. I struggle with feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, burn out, and rage. I think the reason that I haven't read your books is that you seem to ‘have it all together’ and I envy that.”

My response? “No one has it all together. Books are the end result of patience and forbearing and a vision. Books have it all together, but most people I've met (and me, too) don't have it all together.

“But, let's start with the pain. Yes, it is painful to know what animals endure. It is very difficult to live with this information. But, the response to this is to say, ‘I would rather know, than not know, and I will find the inner strength to know and not collapse under the weight of knowing.’" I know, that sounds fine, but how to do that? Several things come to mind.

First, no matter the activism we do for animals we have to take care of ourselves. We cannot do it all, so as we do what we can do, we must do it with love for our own animal body. We can't exhaust ourselves or we don't end up helping the animals.

We have to develop interests outside of the animal rights movement—music, poetry, going to movies—something that meets our needs for nurture and growth. This way we don't ask the animal rights movement to be everything and all things to us and conversely and importantly: the animal rights movement doesn't ask us to see it as the sole thing of importance in our lives. We can come to it with energy rather than feeling overwhelmed. Be aware of your own boundaries. Do you have a past that includes violations of your boundaries by others? To find a way to restore one's sense of boundaries is important, because the amount of animal abuse is so overwhelming that we have to have the skills to say, "I cannot do everything." A boundary means, "I know where I end and where you begin." Having healthy boundaries allows for healthy activism.

One of the attractions of some groups in the animal rights movements is that they provide several antidotes to traumatic knowledge: they offer a way to be heard, to have a sense that you are working for change, and a way to express anger.

The basic debate about means versus ends—do the ends justify the means?—that every social change movement experiences—is slightly different for the animal rights movement. We are acting on behalf of others—and the immensity and ceaselessness of their exploitation creates an urgency to act.... and continue acting.

But this urgency is dangerous. We sometimes make decisions based on this urgency, losing sight of the need to evaluate, including what our own needs are. Traumatic knowledge may cause us to see everything in black and white. The problem is we live in a grey world.

Activism is grounded in theory; theory is expressed through activism. Keeping them linked is very important.  Theory helps us see the grey world. Living with traumatic knowledge, as we all do, means that we need to be aware of how it acts upon us. Allow yourself to spend some time reflecting and reading.

Traumatic knowledge requires that we take care of ourselves, spiritually and physically and emotionally.

And we all need to experience this truth: traumatic knowledge can be integrated it within our lives. Yes, we do feel a wide variety of emotions in response to this knowledge about nonhumans. But it will not kill us. We can acknowledge those feelings but we need not act on those feelings. We have to develop an inner capacity, an inner discipline so that traumatic knowledge doesn’t destroy us. We must find ways to say, “yes, here you are again, this feeling of pain and hurt and desperation. But I know I can live with it. I know it will not destroy me. I can take the time to acknowledge it, take a deep breath, regain my grounding, and then move forward.” As Buddhist meditators say, Don’t just do something, sit there. 

Make sure you have loving supportive friends who love you simply for who you are, take time to exercise or develop a spiritual or personal practice; take time to rest. For me, theory is extremely powerful in keeping traumatic knowledge in its place in my life. An example of my own traumatic knowledge was the realization more than forty years ago that there was a connection between a patriarchal world and animal oppression. This knowledge needed to be expressed. This knowledge forced me to become a writer. Georgia O’Keefe said that as an artist she lived on the edge of a knife. I know the sharp edge of a knife too. I live on top of it as well. Traumatic knowledge is sharp, but it is powerful and it can empower us, if we can stay balanced upon it.