The Highest Virtue

I’ve been under the weather for a while now and trying to catch up with lots of work. I’ve had a few new blog posts rolling around my head for a while and I even made a couple drafts but so far nothing has shaken out completely.

I’ve also been away from my blog because I was grieving for a few days. Some friends of mine had to let go a cat they’d been caring for and I was there when he passed. This was a stray cat that worked out an exchange of food an affection with these friends. They came home from work one day to find the cat injured after being struck by a car. 24 hours of intensive veterinary care later it was evident that no amount of treatment was going to give this small life a reasonable shot at life. Continued intervention would have simply prolonged a painful existence. My friend made the very difficult decision to let go of a creature she cared for deeply.

It was a hard choice and it hurt – physically  hurt – every one of us there that day. I am also convinced the right choice was made. Prolonging a life filled with pain in the hopes that by some slim chance all possible surgeries were successful would have only given this animal a life still filled with pain. I couldn’t demand that this cat cope with that kind of pain and neither could my friend. It was a hard choice and it was the right choice.

I chose to watch that little life slip away. It was over and done very quickly because even though I wanted to just sit with this poor stray cat, I couldn’t allow it to linger in pain simply for my emotional satisfaction. This was not an animal I had known 12 hours before. I still cried for two days.

I came to recognize the virtue of compassion is an unexpected way. I don’t even know when it became so important but suddenly it was. None of the traditions that make up my spiritual background especially emphasis compassion and indeed in some circles it is derided as a weak and meaningless value. Without realizing it I became very concerned with adopting a compassionate stance.

Demanding that a fellow animal continue living to satisfy my emotions and sense of ethics is not compassion. I care deeply about animals and I’m especially fond of cats. Thus I have to be realistic about their native capacity to cope. Coping with chronic pain is mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding; I know from personal experience. A cat’s ability to cope is limited primarily to its ability to endure. Demanding that another creature endure continued pain because I wish to avoid the experience of grief is not right. That is not compassionate.

Compassion, I discovered, is not simply caring about or for others. Compassion encompasses a willingness to take on a burden of pain so another doesn’t suffer, so that’s what I did. This isn’t a noble statement or even a very brave one. It is simply moral.

A final twitch from the cold anesthetic was the only indication that a life was about to end. I don’t give much thought to life after death and indeed there are times when I wish fervently that there isn’t one. However, I do have some strong feelings about reincarnation for no particularly good reason. I wished very hard that this small life would find a new vessel, a new body of life without pain and without fear and without want. I’ll continue to grieve because that is the price I decided to exchange for that small freedom.

I’d do it again and I’m sure someday, I will.


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