Turtles and Patient Endurance

What's on my mind as I think about a sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost?

Last week as I drove across Stone Harbor Boulevard near the Wetlands Institute, several adults (one dressed as a turtle) held signs reminding passers-by to "slow down for turtles." And, in this part of New Jersey, it is not uncommon to see a motorist pull over by the side of the road to help (i.e., carry) a turtle across the busy streets. As I reflected on these small acts of human kindness I thought once again on our unique capacity for empathy. Not only can we have feelings with and for other humans, but also for all sorts and species of God's creatures.

And yet. Another curiosity struck me: Why is it that many of us - myself included - are frequently drawn in to news stories about atrocities committed against animals - drawn in, in some cases, to the point of tears - but we watch the evening news as we eat our dinners, not unaware, but somehow less viscerally moved, by what we see there - the violence of wars, the catastrophic effects of storms, the senseless acts of violence committed human against human - brother against brother and sister against sister. Why does a story about a puppy being beaten by its owner evoke tears and a story about an elder being abused by his own son or daughter not (mind you, it does disturb me greatly, but I am not pulled to that same physical response)?

Some years ago I read a book by my college philosophy professor, Dr. Loyal Rue - By the Grace of Guile: The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs - in which Rue suggests that deception is at work throughout nature. Moreover, he writes that deception is not, in and of itself, a bad thing - in fact, it is a natural thing - a survival thing. For example, brightly-colored butterflies are deceptive by nature as they blend in with the flowers off of which they feed, thereby protecting themselves from preying enemies. And even human beings, use deception (and self-deception) to protect ourselves on a psychological level.

What does this have to do with the turtles that we stop for, the abused animals we shed tears for, and the human beings killed, maimed, and abused that we do not shed a tear for? Perhaps it is not so much that we don't shed a tear, but rather that we dare not shed a tear. Is our inability to viscerally respond to human atrocities actually a deceptive tactic we use to protect ourselves from the overwhelming nature of these atrocities? I have known people who feel very strongly - people whose families shelter them from "bad news" because they are fearful that they will not be able to cope. And, the people I have known who do, in fact, feel with and for every victim of every atrocity that they hear about are literally paralyzed by their grief, paralyzed by their emotions. Perhaps we deceive ourselves by not feeling so that we can survive, so that we can continue to move forward.

In this Sunday's reading from the letter to the church at Rome, Paul writes, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. . . . We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves . . . groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." And yet, we are not ground down by these realities - we dare not be ground down by them - we sustain ourselves in the "hope for what we do not see" and, indeed, "we wait for it with patience." Rather than becoming paralyzed by the many injustices around us, we continue to move forward out of the hope for what will be - the promises of God.