Sunday, October 16, 2011

Selfishness disguised as compassion, or kamma can suck

For the past several days I’ve been struggling over what to do with my cat, Symba. He’s been sniffling and sneezing and losing weight, which I largely attributed to some type of severe allergy or sinus infection. However, there was a key symptom I wasn’t paying attention to: Symba’s breath was awful smelling, like rot. Everything else was beguilingly normal; all his other body functions were operating, shall we say, unimpeded. And he was especially perky whenever I fed him and Tazz, my other cat, soft food.

When I finally took Symba in to see the vet, the news was dire. It wasn’t merely nasal congestion or some allergy going on. It was an infection, but it was in his mouth. He had already lost several teeth, his breath smelled rotten because of all the pus building in his gums and even the roof of his mouth, which was starting to look like maggot-ridden hamburger. The swelling from the pus on his right cheek was so intense it was ready to burst through the outside of his cheek; the vet showed me the spot where hair was starting to disappear. That’s why he was constantly rubbing and grooming that side of his head with a paw. And that’s why he showed excitement when I brought out the soft food, because his mouth hurt so much to eat dry food.

I was overwhelmed with sadness, but it wasn’t for Symba – it was all about me. I hadn’t recognized it fully, however, at that moment. Oh, I knew I felt guilt for not paying closer attention to Symba’s symptoms. And I felt guilt over not listening to a vet 8 years ago who told me that Symba was developing gum disease that ought to be taken care of. But when he told me that it would cost $150 to clean his teeth when I hadn’t gone to a dentist in years to take care of my own teeth, I said no. Now I was looking at major surgery for Symba to the tune of at least $900, potentially more.

There was the possibility, the vet told me, that Symba’s problems were entirely restricted to this awful – and I mean AWFUL – mouth infection. She said there was a possibility he may have bone cancer in the jaw as well. If that were the case, she recommended putting him down. But there was a catch. She would need to begin the surgery on his mouth before she could see and determine if cancer were present. And even then, it may not be immediately obvious, which would then necessitate a biopsy. Biopsy results could take a couple days, meaning the mouth surgery would be completed and a few days after his return home, the biopsy result would be available.

This all meant that I could end up spending more than $900 only to learn later that Symba’s days were over. That bugged me. Really bugged me. But a voice inside reminded me had I listened to that vet 8 years ago and paid the $150 then, I wouldn’t be faced with $900 now.

This was all on Thursday. The vet told me she couldn’t do the surgery until Monday. If all went well, Symba could be home that evening. If it were just the mouth infection, she said his prognosis was actually excellent. Symba wouldn’t have any teeth, but should fully recover. They had a plan, also, that would allow me to pay for the surgery over time, interest free. I qualified, so I agreed to schedule the surgery for Monday with the knowledge that I still had the weekend to think things over.

That evening I had dinner over at a friend’s house. He gave me very practical feedback. I don’t have $900, this would add to my debt load, even if only temporarily, he told me. Symba was 15 years old, he’s lived a good life. I gave him an excellent home, took care of him and loved him. I shouldn’t feel guilty over not addressing the gum disease issue in the past. I also had my own life situation to consider. My cat food costs would like go up after this because I would need to buy soft food more frequently, so long term my expenses would rise. I needed to think about myself in this situation as well.

It was all very persuasive. My friend made excellent and valid points. I didn’t have any money, no savings at all, and Symba was 15 years old, at the high end of a cat’s normal life span. Even if the surgery was successful and there was no cancer, how many more years would I be giving to Symba?

Friday I worked at home, although frankly, I was not very productive. I struggled with my decision. I couldn’t ignore the cost and the impact that would have on me.

Symba seemed to sense something was troubling me. He came out of his corner where he’s been spending his days, the lower shelf on a small case where I keep grocery bags, and came into my home office. He looked at me, meowed loudly (I think he’s deaf now, and that may be the result of the infection as well), then jumped into my lap. I reclined back into my chair and he laid his frail body against me and began to purr. I understood now why his fur was so ratty looking; he wasn’t grooming himself because of the mouth infection. I knew why he had lost weight; because it hurt his mouth to eat the dry food. I was overwhelmed with sadness and guilt. I apologized to him. I did this to him. I had failed. And the decision to have him put down was beginning to take shape.

But it was still all about me.

I was ready to take him to the animal hospital that moment and have it done. But there was somebody else I wanted to talk to first. Benny. So I left a message for Benny to give me a call. While waiting for Benny’s call, I drove to Whole Foods to pick up some items with the idea that I would park my car on the street when I got back, making it easier to bring Symba down to the car to take him to the vet. But when I returned from Whole Foods, there were no street parking spaces, so I drove back to the alley to my garage.

Back inside, I tried to do a little work, responded to some emails, and then Benny called. We chatted for a bit and he said something that surprised me. Benny’s known about my Buddhist practice, I even tried to teach him meditation but he didn’t stick with it. He said that my dilemma sounded like something I should meditate on.

Duh. When was the last time I meditated? My practice had really gone to shit. It must have been weeks, perhaps months, since I last mediated. What was up with that? After my call with Benny, that’s exactly what I did, I went to the cushion.

It was a struggle. My mind was all over the place. Rather than attempt to “think” about anything, my decision or whatever, I just brought my mind back to my breath. Over and over it would run wild into this or that thought, and I would each time bring it back to the breath. By then end of the session, I had achieved some semblance of mental calm. I then began my normal routine of chanting some Pali verses after the silent sit. Needless to say I got a bit choked up when I said out loud, “May all beings be free from suffering.” But what really got to me was reciting the Five Recollections.

“I am of the nature to grow old, I have not got beyond aging.
“I am of the nature to be sick, I have not got beyond disease.
“I am of the nature to die, I have not got beyond death.
“All that is mine, beloved, and pleasing, changes and vanishes.
“I am the owner of my kamma, the creator of my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported in my kamma; whatever kamma I create – skillful or unskillful, light or dark – to that I fall heir.”

My voice trembled as I recited this, but something was coming up. Something was rising.

I went back to my computer and began a search with the terms “euthanizing pets Buddhism.” The discussion was all over the place, but I began to see a common thread. And in particular, it was discussion on how our sense of compassion may not really be compassion at all, but a mask to cover up selfish intentions. We tell ourselves that our beloved pet is suffering and so we seek to end that suffering. At the other extreme is the notion we should never euthanize our pets because they have their own kamma to work through and by euthanizing them we’re interfering with that. I found that argument to be bullshit, largely because it presumes that we “know” what kamma the animal has and must deal with. Now that is ego to the extreme. Plus, such a position logically leads us never to intervene when anyone is sick because we might be interfering with their kamma. That’s just crazy.

But the notion that the option of euthanizing an animal was merely a smoke-screen covering up our own discomfort with disease and death was resonating with me. The more I began to re-evaluate Symba’s symptoms, the more I began to see that the likelihood he also had cancer was extremely low. I’ve had pets that were on death’s door because of either feline leukemia or another terminal illness. It was clear that they were close to death because they weren’t eating, some couldn’t even lift up their head and they could barely respond to any type of affection.

Beyond the fact that he had a horrible mouth, Symba was still Symba. He remained affectionate and even playful, particularly if he knew I was preparing soft food for him.

We all get sick. Sometimes really, really sick. But we don’t die from every illness. Not every illness is fatal. In fact, we recover from really major illnesses all the time.

And so do animals.

I do have responsibility for Symba’s illness. After all, I cannot ignore the fact that I did not heed the advice of that vet 8 years ago. Symba’s and my kamma are connected. And this got me thinking of the simile of the salt crystal. I can’t erase my negligence and selfishness entirely all in one sweep, but I do have an opportunity to remedy this and eliminate not just my kamma but Symba’s as well. And when I came to that realization, this burden I had been feeling was completely lifted. I felt light and at ease, like a shadow that never leaves.

So I will be bringing Symba in on Monday morning, but it will be for the surgery. Certainly there is the possibility that he has cancer and in that case, we’ll put him down. But I truly believe that is a slim chance. Despite that, I am comfortable with my decision. Symba doesn’t want to die and he doesn’t need to now. For me to think I would be doing him a favor by euthanizing him was delusion.

This time the decision was about Symba.


  1. I am glad to hear your decision, and you have my full support. :)

  2. Nice post :)

    I'm one of the supporters of letting suffering beings deal with their suffering. I don't think you help your cat deal with the causes of being born a cat with cancer by killing him; as you say, you may satisfy your own aversion to seeing him suffer, and that aversion will become a habit. Coupled with the cruelty of ending the life of another being without their consent, it wouldn't bode well for the mind.

    I think intervening when someone is sick is good when it means bringing them clarity of mind and the ability to deal with the sickness. I don't think it can be good when it affirms aversion to suffering, either ours or theirs. Suicide and assisted-suicide are the ultimate in aversion to suffering.

    So, yeah, I would be careful of the "put him down" euphemism... seems just part of the culture of tidiness that surrounds pets in general. We think we can take these wilderness creatures into our homes and then just turn them off like robots when they break down. We spend thousands on veterinarian visits thinking we're doing the right thing, when the right thing would have been to leave the animals in the forests in the first place. i think the only morally defensible thing to do is to care for the cancerous animal until it dies naturally, letting it see for itself what it has created by its karma. I know, it's a messy situation, but it's a messy world as well, with no easy solution besides letting go and giving up.

    Hope that doesn't sound too arrogant, I just wanted to give some food for thought, hoping to help prevent a bad thing from happening.

  3. Thank you Ajahn, and no, you don't sound arrogant at all. While writing this post, I was grimacing at the phrase "put down" because that is exactly what it is, a euphemism for killing a living creature. We just give it a new name to tidy up and hide the fact that it remains killing a living being.

    I do feel, however, that by "letting things be as they may," (not your quote, but an appropriate phrase) ignores our own karmic connection with a suffering animal. We cannot end the cycle for another animal, but what does that say about our own? I'm not going to dwell too long on this. But the penalty in the Vinaya for a monk who stops attending another sick monk, a decision that leads to the ailing monk's death (and is that not a form of euthanasia? a deliberate act with death as the known outcome?) is quite minor compared with other offenses. So yes, there will be a consequence for the act. All acts have consequences. But the Buddha implied such an act was less severe than failing to attend at all because of discomfort or squeamishness.

    Anyway, if the biopsy comes back as cancer, I'm thinking I will keep Symba home and just keep giving him love and compassion, and I sincerely hope I'm there when he dies.

  4. Blessings :) and may your cat be well.