Empathy for otters, minks and other beings

To the editor:

This summer, canoeing in Saranac Lake for the first time, I saw a river otter. This surprised me, given the presence of motorboats, some of which were going faster than the speed limit. I witnessed two more sightings that week — I suspect that a slow, silent canoe contributed to my luck. 

A few weeks ago, I saw a mink, weaving in and out of the nooks and crannies along the shore, perhaps investigating for the nests of mice and voles, and the presence of muskrat houses. The shore was right behind a parking lot, behind the main street. 

In both cases, my mind was immediately occupied by the cliches that any animal lover would entertain, such as “Life needs so little to survive.” I found myself wishing well for these two beings doing their best at the precipice of human development. 

If I were to zoom out, I would find an ordinary human expanding his DESIGNATED circle of empathy to include these OTHER beings. There are many remarkable qualities demonstrated by our species, among which, include our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of someone outside of our immediate tribe. And yet this quality, unlike other permanent ones such as opposable thumbs, seems to shrink when one is possessed with fear, paranoia or even an intense concern for the self. After all, the otters and the mink did not pay attention to ME, even once, given their single-minded focus on finding food. 

I do not wish to make a political statement. My appeal is merely the following: that the victors of this election do not rub their victory in the face of the losers. That the losers of this election do not act like sore losers. That both sides realize that there are no real victors or losers because we must act as one in order to achieve goals that we value. Furthermore, that both sides expand their circle of empathy to ALL Americans, regardless of where they currently find themselves entrenched. 

I leave you with a quote from the late David Foster Wallace:

“The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”


Nandan Pai

Lake Placid


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