By Contributor Tamar Vogel, MA, Hebrew University
There are many different reasons why people choose to go into the field of psychotherapy, but at the core of the profession lies the goal of reducing suffering. The psychotherapeutic endeavor aims to lighten people’s suffering, increase their well-being and improve their lives.
This wish to alleviate suffering was certainly part of what drew me to become a clinical psychologist. The subjective experience of individuals seemed to me then, and still does today, the most important thing there is. Where is the meaning of life if not within the experience of the individuals in this world, and what is more real than happiness or suffering? I could not think of anything more meaningful or gratifying to do than to try to reduce suffering.
I was always quite sensitive to the suffering of people around me, but the psychotherapeutic work with clients and the discourse with colleagues sensitized me further to the struggles many of us cope with. The exploration of the person’s inner experiences and struggles helps to develop a more compassionate attitude towards outward behaviors which may otherwise draw judgment. In this way, the psychotherapeutic profession taps into our ability for compassion, but is also likely to increase our amount of compassion.
Then something dramatic happened. I became aware of something massive, something that was there all along right in front of me and yet I had been blind to it: the untold and forgotten suffering of trillions of individuals who happen to be of another species. For the first time, I watched footage of what cows, chickens, goats, fish and pigs go through in animal agriculture, from factory farm to small family farm, and I was horrified. I saw suffering so enormous we wouldn’t wish it upon our worst enemy.
I was heartbroken, and I was disappointed in myself. How could I not have seen this grave injustice of dominating sentient beings, caging them, exploiting and killing them against their will? Full well knowing that the animals used in farming have every bit as much ability as we do to feel pain, sadness, happiness, love, and fear, how could I have been so blind to what is possibly the greatest suffering of all?
Here I was, working in a profession which claims to be sensitive to the subjective experience of others, while denying and discounting non-human animals’ subjective experiences. As a therapist, I was supposed to be aware, to be able to locate my blind spots yet I had this massive blind spot when it came to the injustice done to non-human animals. My professed aim was to reduce suffering, and meanwhile I was actively causing tremendous suffering by what was on my dinner plate.
This is when it clicked for me that my vision had been way too narrow for all these years. With all the sensitivity and empathetic attention to the intricacies of the human mind and the suffering it produces, I had wholly overlooked the fact that we are but one species of many who suffer. More than that, I was responsible for their suffering by consuming the products. Therefore, unlike with human suffering, I realized that reducing this suffering is fully under my control: all I needed to do was to stop contributing to these industries and stop buying these products.
Psychotherapy taps into the natural ability for compassion that is common to most people. However, the focus on our own species to the exclusion of others overlooks a staggering number of suffering individuals. Moreover, it makes us blind to the fact we are actively causing this suffering, suffering which is both unnecessary and preventable. If we recognize the centrality of subjective experience and the importance of relief and prevention of suffering, it means we must expand our circle of compassion to include all those who feel.
Tamar Vogel obtained her B.A. in Psychology and Sociology from Tel Aviv University and her M.A. in Clinical Psychology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. She currently works as a psychologist at a community counseling center as well as in private practice in the region of Haifa, Israel. In addition, she is an animal activist.