A Vegan Knows Empathy

>>  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


veganelder August 22, 2013 at 4:21 AM  

You do nothing but continue to prove over and over that you're one of humanity's few treasures. Thanks for being you.

And please, even though the bike sounds excellent, please don't go getting near folks who are brazen enough to break into houses. Please. Next time it might not be a frightened kid. Few things made by humans are worth risking harm for.

I'm glad you're ok.

CQ August 22, 2013 at 8:45 AM  

This tale shows its author Bea at her best. It is BEA-utifully told.

I think your last name should be officially changed from Elliott to Empathy.

The moment the life of anyone and everyone becomes infinitely more important than the lifelessness of a bicycle and power washer is the moment when someone is truly alive.

Somehow, I think that the sliver of time the pleading-for-empathy lad spent with you affected him deeply -- helped him find his own empathy, buried deep within. That discovery, even more than deserved jail time, is just what he needed.

Why knows: perhaps his heart now goes out to the victims of McDeath and he won't touch a burger, unless it's a vegan one.

Have Gone Vegan August 23, 2013 at 4:26 PM  

Aw, I'm so sorry to hear of this awful night. It must have been maddening, and frightening, and incredibly sad to boot. Yes, the lesson about veganism being about empathy (which you knew already anyway!) was likely valuable, but at what cost to you?

And while I agree with veganelder and CQ about the bike, I have to admit that I'm very attached to mine (a cool olive green '73 Raleigh), and because it's my only means of transport (other than my legs), I think my temper would likely have overruled reason had I suspected the thief was nearby.

Love the graphic by the way. And hope you feel a bit better!

Bea Elliott August 23, 2013 at 7:51 PM  

Hi veganelder - I didn't mean to make this a "aren't I great" statement... I really wanted to draw attention to the vicious way that our dear friends pleas for mercy go unheard. I try hard not to use the word "pity" as I think our fellow Earthlings deserve more respect than that... But sadly this most basic response is denied to them. I see so often that we can give them nothing. Even a criminal gets more. :(

You're right that it wasn't the smartest thing to do to go after him like that but that thought didn't cross my mind till we were inches apart. Then my mind imagined "fist, knife, gun". I never counted on him trying to buy his way out though... It's an experience I'll never forget and never want to relive.

Thanks for the concern and very kind <3 words.

Bea Elliott August 23, 2013 at 8:10 PM  

Hi CQ! No-No! We can't possibly change my Elliott name! I'd lose all my on-line carnist fans who follow my virtual trail of hippy-dust and flowers. LOL!

You know, I could tell very clearly that night that to the police this kid was just another number... So many go through the cracks that just keep getting wider apart. It's the animals. It's the children. It's the victims. I know we all shed our tears at the senselessness of it all.

But there's always the hope as you so often remind me of... I'm sure that those many stickers and messages on that bike must have made an impression on anyone who eventually got the bike. I can almost see them trying to remove them all! And that's the price of a stolen bike! Ha-Ha!

I too hope the kid learned a lot more lessons though... It had to have resonated with him when I said we were all struggling as well. But then the poor steal from the poor all the time anyway. What a world.

Here's to continuing to try to make it more fair and more kind. And to holding on to hope. No one can steal that! ;)

Bea Elliott August 23, 2013 at 8:18 PM  

Hi HGV! Yes that night was all those emotions rolled to one ball. In some peculiar way the conflicts manifested in my head enabled me more clarity. Is that even possible? It's like every pitched feeling clashed in just the right sequence till I had an "Ah-Ha!" moment. It all made a strange kind of sense then... That the world is so wrong because of the missing empathy. And gosh-darn but don't vegans make up for all that's lacking in others? :/

Take good care of your cool olive green '73 Raleigh bike... And your legs... And your very kind heart! <3

David Ashton September 13, 2013 at 12:56 AM  

Hi, Bea! I assumed you only wrote one blog but then just happened on this one. The danger of making assumptions! What a beautiful and exciting story. My heart goes out to you and the boy. Thanks so much for sharing it!

Bea Elliott September 22, 2013 at 3:41 PM  

Hi David! Yeah... I get around on this blogging thing don't I? Trouble is, I'm always behind on one facet or another!

Thanks for the visit and your good wishes for the parties concerned in this life-changing experience. Goes to prove that in every circumstance, there's always something more to learn.