Tragedy and the Sanctity of Life–even a Tiny Shrimp

Well, it’s been quite a news cycle this week, hasn’t it?  From the downed airline over the Ukraine, to the terrible fighting in Gaza, to the horrific stories of gang violence in Honduras and the masses of children seeking refuge in the United States–every day just seemed to bring worse news.  

It’s hard to know what to say in these situations:  there is simply so much evil in the world, so much human sinfulness.  And even thought I am part of a religious tradition that looks that evil and sin right in the eye and doesn’t blink, and even still dares to proclaim both hope in the future and trust in God’s love and mercy in the here and now, sometimes that hope seems so desperately fragile.

I’m reminded here of Emily Dickinson’s poem: 

                   “Hope” is the thing with feathers –
                   That perches in the soul –
                    And sings the tune without the words –
                   And never stops – at all…..

And, frankly, it’s not even about numbers, is it?  The news media cares about numbers, of course–300 is a bigger story than 30–but when it’s your child, your spouse, your city, one is enough to bring you to your knees, and you don’t need a mounting body count to despair.

So, in trying to imagine what clinging to hope might look like in the face of all this, I was quite heartened to come across this little story in The New York Times about Buddhists rescuing shrimp.  Yes, you read that right–shrimp:  read the story here–The Sanctity of Life.

If you know anything about Buddhism, you know it is characterized by a strong tradition of reverence for life–all life, not just human life.  Some of this comes out of the belief in rebirth, in which you or someone you love could end up in the next life as a cat or a donkey, or even a shrimp.  But some of it also relates to a belief in the deep, deep interconnectedness of all life, and the way in which the health and flourishing of every part of creation is related to every other part:  all sentient beings for sure, and even plants and non-sentient life.  This idea, Christians should be able to understand–even if the stuff about rebirth doesn’t quite make sense in a Christian framework.

So, somehow in the face of all this loss and destruction I was quite moved at the thought of individuals spending their day painstakingly digging through the mud with tweezers to rescue stranded shrimp to set them free in the local river.  You may say this is foolish:  why waste time with shrimp when there are people in need that should be helped instead?  I get that, but I also disagree with it in some measure:  behind that kind of reasoning is a false argument that implies first that shrimp and people are not connected; and second, that there is some kind of limit on love and compassion–that only some can be helped but not all, and only certain kinds of altruistic acts have real value.  Instead, I think it is more accurate to see that cultivating love and care for all life creates a climate in which people directly benefit, and might even mitigate against the violence that too often is the first response in situations of fear or anger.  We all know how cruelty to animals too often leads to cruelty to people; why can’t we imagine that the reverse is true:  kindness to animals can lead to greater kindness and compassion to people, too?

This practice of “life liberation” or “mercy release” is not without its detractors and its problems.  But it is also a gloriously defiant act:  taking the time and effort to save a few precious creatures, even knowing that many, maybe even most, will not be saved is both illogical and breathtaking.  It strikes me as a welcome challenge to pragmatic cynicism, and a loud flap of hope’s wings.  Maybe shrimp aren’t much in the grand scheme of things, but they are something; and just as importantly, so is the attitude of love and compassion behind their rescue. 

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