Unbounded Compassion

On my first day at the 2003 Washington, D.C., Animal Rights Conference, I noticed a young woman pushing a teenage boy in a wheelchair. She was gracefully maneuvering the chair through a maze of large photos of caged farm animals. The handsome boy’s head swayed rhythmically from side to side as he reached out towards a display of vegan pastries. The woman’s calm demeanor and confidence in handling the chair made me think she knew the boy well. I thought he might be her brother.

Later, during a presentation, I saw the disabled boy seated in his wheelchair in the aisle next to the young woman. The boy had made an unexpected sound, startling most of the 100 or more people in the audience. She quieted him first by placing a finger on her own lips and another on his and then by slowly lowering his waving arms. After a few minutes, when he made another loud sound, she rose and took him quietly up the aisle.

At dinner that evening I watched her fill a plate with food. She kept the wheelchair and the long reach of its occupant a safe distance from the buffet. I deliberately sat next to her at the large, round dining table where she was feeding him from the plate and taking a few bites for herself. Nicole Fordyce introduced Matt to me as her son. I learned that she became his foster parent and assumed full responsibility for his care nine years ago, when he was 9 years old and she was just 18.

Most people have compassionate feelings. Only a relatively few focus on the most needy, or extend their compassion for humans to all animals, as Nicole has done. What led her to make a commitment to Matt at such a young age? Will her compassionate nature go unnoticed? Does Nicole’s dream of seeing the emancipation of all caged and suffering animals have any possibility of being realized in her lifetime?

Matt was born with tuberous sclerosis, a condition that causes benign tumors on multiple organs of the body. Tuberous sclerosis affects people in a variety of ways. In Matt’s case it has resulted in loss of muscle control and coordination. A secondary diagnosis is autism, which makes communication difficult.

Although Matt started having seizures at four months, in many other ways he developed as a typical infant until age two. Then his birth mother had a second baby and was unable to cope with both the newborn and Matt. He was placed for frequent extended stays of two weeks or more with different institutions for disabled children.

Although Matt is expected to live a long life, early expectations for his developmental progress were pessimistic. Nicole felt differently and maintained a strong belief that Matt had much more potential than what people gave him credit for. She believed that what he needed most was a secure and stimulating home environment. When Nicole left her own family, rented a wheelchair-accessible apartment, and officially became Matt’s foster parent, she was making a lifetime commitment.

Mother Theresa

Mother Theresa of Calcutta was 18 when she entered the order of Sisters of Loreto in her native country of Yugoslavia. She was assigned to work in India, where at age 36 she had what she described as a "call within a calling" to aid the most desperately poor and sick. She formed a new order to carry out this mission and over the next five decades developed a network of 3,000 sisters and volunteers to provide food, medical care, and comfort to orphaned children, lepers, and the dying. She made a lifetime commitment and stayed on task until her death at age 86. Her commitment to serving the poor was recognized in 1979 with a Nobel Prize for Peace.

Nicole’s relationship with Matt started long before she became his foster parent. She first saw him when she was a sixth grader and volunteered to help at a daycare center for children with developmental disabilities next to her elementary school. On her first day as a volunteer helper at the center she noticed Matt’s angelic blue eyes and unruly, sandy-blond hair and wondered why no one was paying attention to such a beautiful boy. She later learned that he cried a lot and did not communicate or appear to respond affectionately to anyone. The only comfort she was able to give him that year was through backrubs.

Two years later when Nicole decided to volunteer again at a weekend relief center, she was surprised to see Matt there, lying on the ground and still looking neglected. Since he did not like having his face washed, the staff had left it smeared with food. That sight brought up feelings of maternal love in the 13-year-old Nicole. She felt a strong need to hold and protect him. Matt responded by nestling his head in her neck and they cuddled all day.

Nicole and Matt had bonded. Instead of going on an end-of-year school trip, Nicole chose to stay with Matt. During her summer vacation she volunteered to be his full-time helper. Partway through her ninth-grade year, Matt’s birth parents offered her a paid support-worker position for eight hours a week, and she began caring for Matt every day after school during the week and volunteering all day on weekends, both when he was at home and in institutional settings.

While she was with Matt through her high school years, Nicole tried to encourage his development in small, practical ways. She used his enjoyment of water play to get him to stand at a sink and eventually to be able to take steps independently toward the sink. She also taught him to drink out of a cup and feed himself.

When Matt’s parents decided to put him into a full-time foster care program for children with disabilities, Nicole applied to be his foster parent. The coordinator of the special foster care program questioned whether an 18-year-old could or should take on this responsibility, but Nicole’s demonstrated commitment and success with Matt over the previous five years finally won them over.

Anne Sullivan

Anne Sullivan, the renowned teacher of Helen Keller, had a difficult childhood herself. An illness at age five left her nearly blind, and she and her brother, who was crippled from tuberculosis, were orphaned a few years later. These experiences may have given Anne the understanding and patience required to free the blind, deaf, and mute Helen from total isolation and confusion. Anne continued as Helen’s teacher when she went to Radcliffe College, and after graduation Helen lived with Anne and her new husband. When Helen became an author and lecturer, Anne accompanied her on her travels.

Matt is now 18 and Nicole is 27. For the past nine years, they have lived in the same subsidized co-op apartment in a mixed commercial/residential neighborhood. When Nicole became Matt’s foster parent she enrolled him in his local community school for the first time and insisted that he be in regular classrooms with his same-age peers. He is accompanied and supported in school by educational assistants. While living with Nicole, Matt has learned to use two words consistently: Mom, which he calls her, and Ma(tt), which he calls himself. He also consistently signs for food and sometimes for yes, no, thank you, and love.

Matt’s room in their home looks like that of any other teenager. Brightly colored posters decorate the walls; fluorescent lamps flash in synch with the music system. One of Matt’s favorite pastimes is dancing on his knees. Despite limited verbal and signing abilities, he is able to maintain a group of friends who visit and party together. He is especially happy when around people who take an interest in him and talk naturally to him. He very effectively lets his pleasure be known with smiling eyes, excited gestures, and laughter.

Nicole did not choose to be with Matt for lack of better options. Her talent and beauty could have taken her life in many exciting and rewarding directions, but she chose to devote herself to the person who needed her most. She does not regret her decision, even when she is stressed from juggling Matt’s care and their full schedules.

The foster care program provides the income needed for their simple lifestyle and gives them up to 12 hours of supportive help in their home each week. This arrangement has allowed Nicole enough free time to pursue a diploma in Developmental Services and, now, a degree in Disability Studies. She finds time to exercise, dance, travel, and spend time with friends by incorporating Matt into those activities. When she does feel overwhelmed, she recovers by reminding herself that she knows of no better alternative for Matt.

Albert Einstein

Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein balanced his intellectual endeavors with many social justice and peace concerns. His philosophy of compassionate living is well captured in this famous observation: "A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

Nicole’s love of animals, like her attraction to Matt, started at an early age. Her childhood room was papered with pictures of animals from nature magazines given to her by her grandmother. At around age ten, before she met Matt, she became aware that she was eating animal flesh and refused meat. When she made that decision, she had not heard the word vegetarian and did not know anyone who did not eat meat. Her parents resisted, but she found ways around their insistence. A dietician finally reassured the parents by saying that Nicole would be healthy as long as she ate eggs and dairy products. Nicole heeded that advice until she attended a vegetarian food festival at age 19 and saw videos of how egg-laying chickens and milk cows are raised and exploited. Seeing so many healthy, long-time vegans at the festival convinced her that she could live well without using any animal products. She has eaten a vegan diet ever since. Matt also eats a vegan diet and has become stronger and healthier while living with Nicole.

MaVynee Betsch

MaVynee Betsch’s career as an opera diva in Europe ended abruptly when she was diagnosed with respiratory illness and cancer at age 27. She returned to American Beach in Florida, an African American-owned oceanfront community founded by her millionaire grandfather, and fully recovered with a regimen that included meditation, daily baptism in the ocean, and a vegan diet. MaVynee has continued her simple, healthy lifestyle for the past 40 years. She maintains an office and keeps her few belongings in a small camper trailer but sleeps in a lawn chair on the beach. All of her resources, including her considerable inheritance and energy, have been fully devoted to conservation of the natural environment and the well-being of beach animals, especially whales and butterflies. Her effective campaign to save American Beach from upscale condominium development was the subject of John Sayle’s recent film, Sunshine State.

Nicole has recently started attending conferences where she has met many more people who share her love of animals. Most people who attend these conferences eat a vegan diet, but not necessarily for the same reasons. The emphasis varies. Some like the healthfulness of the diet, some are attracted by its environmental benefits, some are more concerned about the humane treatment of animals, and some focus more on the rights of all animals to live free and natural lives. Nicole’s views would put her in the latter group that questions the ethics of all forms of human domination of other animals.

Where are Nicole and Matt going? They travel together frequently to explore the natural environment as well as attend conferences. They could do that more easily if they had a van that would accommodate Matt while seated in his wheelchair. Nicole would like to live in different places too, but for now they cannot be away from Matt’s social support system for too long. That might change when he finishes high school next year. Then she would like to be able to move freely with Matt and campaign for a better life for her fellow animals. She dreams of seeing all animals out of cages and off plates in her lifetime.
What chance is there that dedicated crusaders like Nicole and other young people who attend animal rights conferences could dramatically improve the lives of nonhuman animals in the 21st century? Are mainstream attitudes changing?

The experience of the first vegan presidential candidate, Dennis Kucinich, is not encouraging. His campaign literature describes him as "one of the few vegans in Congress, a dietary decision he credits not only with improving his health, but in deepening his belief in the sacredness of all species." The Kucinich website describes him as combining "a powerful political activism with a spiritual sense of the interconnectedness of all living things." Does his inability to win many votes indicate that the mainstream culture is failing to recognize that genuinely compassionate people do take strong stands on behalf of the most downtrodden in society and often extend their concerns for humans to nonhuman animals? Or are prospective voters saying that they do not want a compassionate person as commander-in-chief?

Another contemporary animal-rights advocate is faring better. In October 2003, J.M. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He explored the theme of human insensitivity and cruelty in his early novels about the apartheid system in South Africa. Then, in the acclaimed novel, Disgrace, he unexpectedly extended that theme to include how humans treat other animals.

J.M. Coetzee’s next book, The Lives of Animals, made a full presentation of the case for animal rights, including a controversial comparison of the treatment of animals with the Holocaust. The main character and proponent of animal rights in that book, Elizabeth Costello, argues, "There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are not bounds to the sympathetic imagination." That character’s unbounded compassion landed her another starring role in J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, Elizabeth Costello.

J.M. Coetzee’s recent writings offer profound insights into human nature and the nature of human compassion, especially for other animals. How significant is it that a person who writes about animal rights as well as human rights has been awarded a Nobel Prize? Is this the beginning of a turning point for the animal rights movement? Is human society about to cross a threshold level of awareness and become more receptive to Nicole’s example of unbounded compassion and dream of justice and freedom for all animals? Is it possible that she will see the emancipation of all caged and suffering animals in her lifetime?

In 1743, John Woolman was called by an inner voice to visit his neighbors and plantation owners far from his home to quietly witness for his conviction that human slavery was wrong. He went out of compassion for both slaves and slaveholders. He was concerned about the welfare of the former and the salvation of the latter. Although his 30 years of traveling and witnessing undoubtedly resulted in many slaves being freed, most of his countrymen were not ready to follow his example. When John Woolman died in 1772, there was little reason to expect that human slavery would ever be ended.

Most early advocates of the abolition of slavery probably could not have imagined that the great issue of compassion and freedom for all human races that once divided the country and led it into civil war is now a consensus goal of the nation. Could the same happen for all animal species in Nicole’s lifetime? The greatest thing about the future is that everything is possible.