I was solidly middle-aged before I learned to tell the difference between Depression and Sadness. Having wrestled Depression into a quiet, off-site room of her own using a combination of medication, a good marriage and my own brand of acceptance, I am living with her just fine. Recently I realized that an unexpected side effect of battening down Depression was being able to see and hear Sadness more clearly. A case of good news followed by less-good news, which has now been followed by, if not more good news, at least more clarity.
Not long ago I saw a six-minute excerpt from the film Samsara (directed by Ron Fricke) that showed chickens, pigs and cows being processed for consumption. As a devoted carnivore, I’ve often pondered the me-eating-them dynamic and always concluded that I feel comfortable using animals as food, leather goods and so on.
I’ve seen the popular, stomach-turning fast-food-bashing documentaries, but this film is different. There were images in it that made me feel like I’d taken LSD. Chickens being sucked into a tractor-like vehicle and shot into what looked like towering plastic bureaus, flapping wildly as the drawers were slammed shut. A processing plant the size of a football field filled with gowned and masked workers turning chickens into lots of chicken parts. Animals sailing along an assembly line swaying from hooks and looking remarkably like I imagine people would look if strung up in the same way. An orbiting ring of cows hooked up to milking machines.
A shot panning along behind the cows is what most affected me. The camera lingered on what looked to be the shit-splattered skinny hind legs of a particular white cow. Maybe it was a clean cow with spots that looked like shit, but I really don’t think so. Or, for all I know, cows are so often shit splattered that they do not mind. They almost always seem utterly unruffled about everything, so this is entirely possible. But a cow who is shit splattered because she can’t move, having been locked into a sort of an iron maiden kind of thing (the torture device, not the band) and tethered to a milking machine is, I have to believe, much worse off than a cow who is munching her way across a field in the fresh air, absentmindedly grazing and shitting.
It took me a few days to categorize the feeling I had as I watched that shot. Outraged? No, not exactly. Disgusted? A little. Describing the film and my reaction to my sister (who prefers animals to people for the most part) I finally hit on the right word: “It made me sad,” I told her, talking into my Bluetooth phone connection as I sat in freeway traffic early one morning. “Yes, I can hear it in your voice,” she confirmed. “You are sad.”
Now I need to backtrack a bit here and say this: I am a very good quitter. I am not very good at moderating. I have quit more things than most people my age have started. I’m not bragging, because with only a few exceptions, this has been less about ethics and improving the planet and more about saving my own ass. Anyway, I quit eating beef, pork and chicken that day. I’m trying it for a bit to see how it goes.
The original point of all this, besides it being part of that pastime pursued by all personal-blog bloggers—i.e., describing one’s own life events as if they were breaking news—is that I just may have figured out something about the nature of sadness. If it could be blasted apart, the millions of shards might be moments in which suffering or loss took place way out beyond our peripheral vision. It might be that shit-splattered cow legs, distant as they are from our plates, can really get a person down.