>> Wednesday, August 21, 2013
A while ago my neighborhood had a series of burglaries. With the exception of one home being broken into with significant damage, there was nothing of great consequence stolen from anyone. We got robbed too. The first time it was small yard tools. The second time they took my black 50's bike with all the cool vegan stickers, an extension ladder and a pressure washer. For months there was a relentless succession of hits. It was extremely infuriating as you can imagine.
One evening past midnight, there was a noise across the street. When my husband and I went outside, we saw an unfamiliar truck in front of our neighbor's garage. The perpetrator spotted us and ran into his vehicle for a get-a-way. My husband yelled for me to call 911. But by then I was already in my car set to engage in hot pursuit. The chase lead us to a closed McDeath parking lot where I managed to pin his car. He had no choice but to flee on foot, and so he ran into an all-night Denny's. I shouted "call the police!", and I blocked the individual in the vestibule so he couldn't leave.
There we were together... An exhausted pair with clashing interests. I could see then that he was just a kid. A panicked, terrified, trapped kid. I too was shaken. All I could do was ask why he stole things from people who worked hard for what they had. People who weren't any better off than he was. I asked him about my bike too... I was angry! The kid pleaded with me. He begged. He took a handful of dollar bills out of his pocket and said "Please! I'll give you everything - Just let me go!". He was crying - sobbing tears of worry and desperation. He knew as well as I though, that everything was already set into motion. There were witnesses, and the sheriff was well on the way. I let him push me aside and he ran so fast and far that I lost sight of him.
The police arrived in less than a minute. After that, the helicopters were on air patrol searching for this scared, hopelessly troubled young man. I was instructed to wait in my car until someone could take my statement. Officers were everywhere. A K-9 unit sniffed the contents of the abandoned truck. The father of the boy arrived on the scene as well.
In the meantime I did a lot of thinking. I imagined what it must have been like to be this hunted thief. I thought about how terrified his eyes were. How crazed and frantic he was. How he pleaded with me to make the event disappear. I thought about how this was the worst moment in his life, and I felt sincerely sorry for him that he had poor chances and made bad choices. I know my worry was running along with him in whatever dark alley he was hiding in. I felt his trouble in a way that I didn't expect I would.
Initially I was confused as to why I felt such grief for someone who had violated my privacy and stolen my possessions. How and why did I feel sorry - for him? I was the victim!
My eyes wandered into the dimly lit, vacant McDonald's building. I stared at the counter. It appeared so sanitized in its smooth, stainless finishes. And then, as a vegan's mind might work sometimes... I thought about how this boy's pleading could very likely be the same as an animal in the hands of a slaughterer. They too cry desperately to be let go. They too beg for pity in their own language. And they too would give anything to be spared from harm. The struggle, fear and panic would be the same. But their cries for mercy go unheard by the slaughterer. I wondered how it could be that I could care so much for someone who had wronged me while those who killed the innocent weren't troubled at all to do so. I couldn't and still don't understand how effortlessly they can do the worst acts against those who are totally innocent. All so that other victims can serve their bodies on cold, polished steel. I thought of these things while in my car... And I sobbed for all of us.
My thoughts linked back to a troubled boy, desperate for money, and settling for any way to escape the chains of poverty. And that boy then became the man holding the knife upon the throat of an innocent. I felt sorry for the father who surely felt he'd failed his son. It had come full circle. I realized in that moment that the only ones that escape, are those who still have empathy.
Eventually I gave my statement, the cars and crowds cleared out, and the helicopters ended their search. When the sun rose the next morning that McDonald's parking lot wouldn't show a sign of a weary, pacing father, a boy running for his life, or a woman crying in her car for all the victims.
They'd find the boy a few days later, laying low at a friend's home. My bike was never recovered, as with most of the goods, they were all disbursed or pawned... But for what I learned about myself that night - What I discovered about who I am, I wouldn't give a hundred black 50's bikes for. I understood completely what being vegan means to me: Empathy.
Frans De Waal talks about Empathy
Center for Building a Culture of Empathy