The saga of Cecil the lion and the dentist who killed him has raged on the internet for days now. No doubt hundreds of thousands - maybe millions - of words have been written on the topic, from the unnecessary and deeply troubling death threats made against the dentist and his family (while killing a protected and majestic animal is horrific death threats are no less so) to those who have risen in his defence, scattered as they may be. Wound into the story has been threads of those outraged that we as a society could have so much outrage over the death of a lion, a collective global anger, when crimes against humans often go unpunished.
"Why aren't we as outraged about child abuse? Child pornography? Human trafficking? Domestic violence?" these voices cry, as if somehow the outrage over the death of one lion minimizes the outrage I would suggest most people feel about those very issues. I think that for most of us, though, we feel powerless in the face of those issues because we don't know how to address them. They anger us, they sicken us, they torment us, and they are entirely too close to us as we know they are happening in our own communities, as opposed to the death of a lion in a country far, far away. We can express our outrage over the death of a lion because it doesn't require us to try to consider how to stop it, other than vowing to never trophy hunt lions ourselves, as opposed to thinking about issues much closer to us and finding the bile rising in our throats as we recognize how woefully powerless we feel to combat them.
I am not upset or angered about the collective anger over the killing of one lion. I am troubled at the threats and the vociferousness of some, but instead I am genuinely relieved that the death of a lion in a country far away elicited a strong response in our hearts - because it means we still have them.
Let's be honest: thanks to the internet we are now deluged on a daily basis with horror. My timeline fills daily with horrific things, the sorts of things that smash you upside the head and make you almost wish you had never known them. I now know the terrors experienced by children all over the world as they are forced into slavery, the pain experienced by millions for various reasons, the agony they suffer...it is enough to make one numb, and it is the numbness I fear the most for us, because constant exposure to such horror can make one numb and incapable of feeling empathy.
I have had friends who have worked in difficult professions, medicine and law enforcement, for instance, who "burned out" and left their professions when they realized they no longer felt anything for the suffering of those they encountered. They had been so exposed to these horrors that they became numb, disconnected from our basic instinct to feel empathy for the pain experienced by another. One of my fears is that social media has the capacity to do this on a massive scale, exposing us on a daily basis to such horrific occurrences that they stop being horrific and instead become commonplace, just a story we scroll by instead of stopping to read and absorb it.
Is the reaction to the killing of a lion that few of us ever saw in a country far away excessive? Probably, particularly when it touches on darker sides of our own nature and we threaten a fellow human and his family over it. But am I troubled that people expressed sorrow over the death of a lion? No, not at all. Better sorrow over a lion than sorrow over nothing, and hopefully this is a sign that our ability to feel and express empathy has survived this brave new world, allowing us to still feel that same kind of empathy for all those other issues that are far closer to us and far more likely to touch our own lives.
The saga of Cecil the lion will fade into obscurity soon enough, as these internet sensations always do. Maybe it will prove the catalyst to enact better protection of vulnerable wild animals, and maybe it won't. Whatever happens, for a brief moment in time at least some of us connected with that empathy that is being dulled on a daily basis by a world awash in tragedies, and we remembered our ability to feel anger, and sorrow, and pain.
We still have our hearts, and whether they are triggered by the death of a lion or issues much closer to home I am so very grateful we have not yet lost them. It is in this knowledge that we should take comfort, as it means we still do have the ability to care about all those issues much closer to us - and act on them, too.