The Animal We Love and Hate

by Eric G. Weiner

(Note: I will almost always use quotation marks around the word “animal” because the word only exists to differentiate us from all the rest of living beings, there has never been “an animal” in the entire history of the world.)

We come across an “animal” in the country and we stop and look, we would like to get closer — if it will let us. We look at “animals” on the web — adorable cat videos, irresistible puppies, heartwarming mixed species friendships, etc.

We look at photos of “animals”, watch documentaries, decorate calendars and cover our children’s clothing, walls, and books with “animals”. We go to zoos, spend thousands of dollars on wildlife safaris, we collectively spend billions on our beloved pets. We are fascinated, perhaps obsessed.

We have been looking at “animals” for a long time — a very, very long time. Anthropologist Pat Shippman, in her book The Animal Connection, observes that in all of cave art , the overwhelming feature, with by far the greatest detail and prominence is the “animal”. The “animal” walks by us, and we stare.

We, homo sapiens, live outside of real time; instead, we spend our entire existence in imaginary time. Part of our time is spent contemplating the past, the rest, thinking about the future. Gurus tell us to “Be here now”, “live in the present” but unless we are zen masters this is unlikely. We spend our lives in the non-existent future and past, seldom in the actual present.

We have removed ourselves almost completely from the real, ongoing world. We live in a map we have created of reality — one composed of words and concepts — but are no longer in the world. We have become phenomenally, and phenomenologically, impoverished.

With all our riches and accomplishments as a species, we are locked out of the real world. We live in the jail of our constructed reality. It is life imprisonment. We look out from our personal prisons at the “animal” still living fully in the real world, and in present time, and dimly sense what we have lost.

The “animal” exists almost entirely in the present, while we almost never do. The animal is in touch with its body, comfortable with its natural functions, and has no problem living with its emotions and expressing itself. The “animal” is everything we have repressed or cast aside from ourselves, and what unconsciously we yearn to return to. This deep ambivalence can be seen across history. We have variously made the animal into gods, into devils; we have worshipped them, denigrated them, slaughtered them by the billions, tortured them, and lovingly taken them into our houses and hearts. We are desperate to be close to them and at the same time murderously reject them. This is identical to the way we relate to the “animal within”. We despise it: “He acts like an animal”; and then we admire it: “She moves with the grace of an animal”, “He has the heart of a lion”

This ambivalence causes us to entwine our beloved children with stuffed animals, animal clothing, cartoons, and stories then serve them dead animals on their plates.

As a species we are crazy and we are growing crazier.

Was a psychotherapist, photographer, would-be writer for many years; musician/songwriter for very few years. Also a committed long-time vegan.