A chord within

A few years ago, in the chill of an English country morning, I held a day-old calf in my arms for the first time. It was an event that would set me on a path with no end yet in sight.

We were on vacation, and had stayed the night on the small dairy farm of Reg and Yvonne Sobey. In the morning I found the calf alone in a stall, trembling in the dim light. He was afraid of me. Nothing was more disturbing to me suddenly than to realize that I was an object of fear to this wide-eyed little creature. Perhaps that is why I simply moved to his side and took him in my arms. Now, I had been all of my life a true child of the big city. I didn't know physically or emotionally what to expect. I thought his coat would be rough, but it was the texture of duckling down. He was mostly black, and as lustrous as patent leather. He was warm and very clean, and his breath and body smelled of tepid milk. With my eyes closed and his heart beating next to mine, it seemed to me that he was every new creature ever brought into the world.

Then Reg came back in from milking and looked at me. He was a kind man. He knew each of his sixty cows by name, and it was clear that he loved them. But he seemed to sense a need I had to awake to some human realities. Perhaps he wanted to close the gap between his world, full of life's normal responsibilities (including the fact that a man with cows to milk twice a day took no vacations), and the rather casual, superficial world that vacationers usually dwell in as they pass through other people's lives and problems. Perhaps he could almost hear me telling my story at home. ''. . . and then I held a day-old calf in my arms one morning on a farm in England. . . .'' So Reg leaned over the stall and altered my way of thinking forever.

''I don't sell the young ones myself,'' he said, ''but they often take these at three weeks for veal. That's what milk-fed veal means - before they eat grass. Sometimes they even take them right out of the womb before they're born, for fancy veal.''

Once (as a child of the big city) I had visited a farm and milked a cow. But now my child's foolish romantic sense of farm life that had followed me into adulthood vanished. Shock melted into tears. Burying my face in this gentle creature's softness, I wept. Tears fell on the calf and on the straw and on my life. I tried, until we left the farm that same morning, to detour my thoughts onto alternative routes so that I could stop the tears. I couldn't. I had been awakened out of an ignorant sleep. For months afterward I cried when I thought of the calf. I cried when I saw milk-fed veal on a menu. The pieces of pale flesh wrapped neatly in cellophane in the supermarket would never again be faceless masses.

This was the beginning of a progressive and inclusive awakening. It wasn't long before I was being led ever more deeply into an exploration of the nature of all nonhuman life and our relationship to it (and I have come to feel that this is one of the great new frontiers). I became involved in numerous national and international organizations set up to protect animal and plant life, informed myself on the subjects of endangered species, laboratory experimentation on animals, and hunting and trapping practices. And - I sold a raccoon coat that had meant much to me once when the pelts were faceless, when vanity, tradition and ignorance blinded me to what I came to feel was the outrage of killing another creature to take something that didn't belong to me.

Suddenly, as I followed this moral awakening, there appeared a new but obvious realization: I had remained asleep to the issue of the veal calf because I had not been personallym touched by it. Then I remembered that, in this very newspaper, I read periodically about millions of starving children, about missing POWs, about the suppression and persecution of human rights advocates, about gun control. I would become shocked, angry, indignant - and then forget. Why do I forget? Because I do not know a starving child. Because I have no parent, brother, friend, husband, missing or oppressed. Because I know no one who has been harmed by a gun. But I do know that the man who started the gun control organization lost a son to a handgun. That the people doing the most for human rights are those who have been, or are being, deprived of their freedoms. And I know - because I read it in the Monitor - that a French woman named Simone Weil found out what it was like to go hungry by deliberately going without food. And then she did something about hunger in the world.

I would work - oh, yes, I would work - to change things if some of these miseries touched my life as that innocent calf had touched it. What can I say about hunger? That awhile back, when I thought dieting was intelligent, I skipped a few meals and felt hungry? It seems a fact of life that human beings must be personally touched in order to become aware, must suffer in order to be compassionate, even in the simplest matters. I remember the generous tips my father always gave cabdrivers because his own father had driven a cab for fifty backbreaking years.

But heaven help us all if we mustm be personally touched by hunger, oppression or death in order to feel something or do something. How do human beings come to be consistently motivated to care, if not by personal involvement? By saying, ''That could be my own child''? By trying to remember our common humanity? By reasoning that we might ourselves be suffering if circumstances were different? These reasons have helped, but for me they have been answers of the head and not the heart. What brings head and heart together?

I searched my heart for the answer to this question. If love has to be self-motivated, I reasoned, it would truly be impossible for human beings to care about those with whom they had no personal contact. But human beings obviously can feel universal, unconditional love. They dom work against tides of ingratitude, misunderstanding and persecution. I know such dedicated people and see their unpublicized, mostly unrewarded love for humanity. So the answer must be that we do not motivate love. Love motivates us. It must be working within us to sensitize, make aware. To turn love that needs an object to move it to action , to love that falls like rain on everything. Love that never needs to remember to love, because it never forgets.

I know that many people feel that the battle against human tragedy can never be won because they believe that some minds are unteachable, some hearts unreachable. But my calf has shown me that it is not a question of learningm to love but of awakeningm to love. And while I know we must each have our own individual awakening, perhaps those already awake can find the way to set off an alarm that no one can sleep through.

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