Friday, July 18, 2014

Trying to make a living...

is a phrase most of us have heard or used at one time or another. I once heard it used in a context wherein it resonated with me so strongly that I can vividly remember the setting in which I heard it and that happened well over thirty years ago. I was in graduate school watching a film about positive reinforcement...the film was shot in Japan and concerned the training of bears to ride unicycles and to do various complicated sequences of actions and the training was all done (supposedly) by using positive reinforcement.

I looked around on the internet and found this image to use as an illustration. There are many images of actual bears riding unicycles and bicycles out there but I didn't want to use a real photo...that seemed to me to be ugly and disrespectful. Any bear riding or doing things to "entertain" humans is a slave and she or he isn't doing those things because they freely chose them.

The narrator of the film was the psychologist who had been hired to serve as the trainer for the animals associated with this entertainment company and he was explaining the processes he used to "teach" the bears how to do various complicated unbearlike behaviors (like riding a unicycle). Basically the idea is that you reward (immediately) any small behavior near what you're looking for and chain small behaviors together into long sequences which then appear to be more complicated behaviors. I'm not going to write a treatise on "learning" theory (behaviorism) so I won't go into any more detail now (and believe me, there's lots and lots of detail).

At one point, after the subject (the bear) had completed a behavior and been rewarded for it, the narrator said that it wasn't difficult to get the bear to do things, that he (the bear) was just "trying to make a living" like the rest of us. When he said that I nearly fainted, it hit me so hard right then (and has stayed with me) that we're all the same. That captured and confined bear was just trying to get by, trying to live his life...just like all of us.

I wish I could say I went vegan right then...I didn't. Somehow I was able to encapsulate that awareness (I kept it, I didn't get rid of it) from my behavior and from other areas of my knowing and kept on operating pretty much as always. But that phrase...and that bear...haunted me.

I still retain many memories and images from that film, and when I did finally wake up to veganism...memory of that bear and his doing what he had to do to "make a living" came rushing back and brought with it a deep sadness and sorrow that I hadn't grasped what I was seeing and hearing enough to go vegan then and there.

It amazes me on some level that I can, on occasion, get worked up into some state of indignation and outrage over human behavior toward other animals and toward Earth...amazes me because of my own blindness and my own participation in awfulness in times past. Getting upset about some non-vegan now is, in one way, nothing but me getting upset with my past self. And...had some vegan been angry with me back then...I probably would not have seen what they were pointing toward...I would only have seen their anger...their upset and outrage...and thought they were peculiar or strange.

It frightens me about blind and oblivious I can be...and yet...I was trying to tell myself something...otherwise the images of that bear and that phrase wouldn't have stuck and resonated...I just didn't figure out what I was trying to tell myself until much much later.

Don't ignore your own messages to yourself...if you haven't gone so now. And if you've gone vegan...thank you for listening.


Bea Elliott said...

Lately I have very good reasons for modifying the phrase "working like a horse". Yes, I'm in the middle of grueling physical demands... And I remind myself in my head: I'm working "like a horse" --- Like a horse FORCED to work. Forced to slave.

And this repeating message isn't even entirely true. My projects are of my own making. They benefit me. I can modify whatever pace I choose. I can quit whenever I want. A "work horse" or "entertainment bear" simply can't do that. That surely is a slave. This notion that others must "pay their way" to our gain in order to validate their existence is contemptible.

Before I was vegan I recall that I used to request my dogs "sit" or do another "trick" for a treat... That control was their price for a moment of extra pleasure. Obviously we don't do this display of domination anymore, and none are the worse for it.

Like you, I often look backwards to see what I was once blinded to... It helps to keep this in mind when dealing with others who are not yet aware. "nothing but me getting upset with my past self" ---Thanks for making this very good point! ;)

Bea Elliott said...

Back again... Not a minute after I left your page I find this article in my Google alerts: "There is a special group of workers who contribute much to our society but are often overlooked - animals. What was their role in early nineteenth-century agriculture? What kind of work do animals perform today?" Oh boy! :/

Have Gone Vegan said...

Back in the land of living/blogging, so hope to slowly catch up. ;)

Trying to make a living -- yikes. That's the one thing they shouldn't have to do. What sometimes worries me though is what I may be obliviously blind to now that I'll be shaking my head over later.

veganelder said...

Thank you for your comments Bea. I always enjoy them and am enlightened. When I watched the film of the bear I was thinking about the fact that all the living beings on our planet do what they need to do "make a living"...i.e. they search/find food, shelter, friends, mates, recreation, etc. Everything they do, we do...but we apply the insanity that somehow our doing of the activities that all of us do are the only ones that count. you point out...if we capture/enslave them...then we think they must "earn their keep" if they choose to be enslaved in the first place.

I'm truly beginning to wonder if we aren't so divorced/disconnected from reality that we might never find our way home. At least going vegan is a step in the right direction. If you're like me, then you still struggle, as I do with getting upset with my past self. :-)

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. Indeed...if apprehending that all living beings have an equal right to their lives and lifeways doesn't bring you to the realization that blindness to the obvious is the "norm" for the current version of human animals...nothing will.

Christine said...

An interesting and thought provoking post. I look back with deep regret concerning past actions and cannot understand why it took so long to go veggie than vegan. The gap between them being 18 years! I cannot understand why I never recognised the cruelty of confining animals in zoos and such like or the use of animals for labour. I guess that for me, like many people, I just did not make the connection, especially concerning the more subtle cruelties towards animals such as the use of animals in entertainment. Most of these animals have no choice other than to go along with what is required; they have no choice in the matter whatsoever. I think people need to be encouraged to think differently about animals and our relationship towards them. Many people still believe in the notion that animals exist for our use rather than as independent beings who exist for their own purposes and wish to live according to their nature.