Ed. note: The End of Watching was chosen as a finalist in the 2012 Sage Magazine Young Environmental Writers Contest.
Hong Kong, by the docks: a fisherman balances nimbly in white galoshes on the beams of a small wooden boat, opening hatches in his little vessel that reveal fresh-caught fish furiously swimming in small watery squares.
A woman leans over the railing above the boat, calling for this fish, no that, in this open-sea market. The prices are cheaper here than in the markets further ashore—she does not haggle—and with no further fuss, the fisherman captures the fish she requests, a flattish grey fellow, in a green mesh net and throws it onto a grooved cutting board, then retrieves a knife rounded almost like a hatchet. The fish struggles as he slices into the gill, revealing a throbbing red.
But Tshering, beside me (I am beside the woman), has already turned his face away from the sight the moment before, covering even peripheral vision of the killing with his left hand cupped to his face. Facing me almost in a cowering position, he furrows his brows and shakes his head.
“In my country, it is sin,” he says –– sin to even look at blood spilling. He had turned away just a tad too late for his comfort.
Tshering is a friend of a friend, visiting me in Hong Kong. We had just been walking by the ocean, as befits an island tourist. He had been interested in watching an octopus, another catch for sale, unfurl itself on the deck of the boat. For a man from a small land-locked country, a languorous eight-legged creature from the sea is a curiosity. But for a man from the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, a fish being killed is intolerable to watch.
“But you eat meat,” I tell him. He is tall for a Bhutanese man: six foot, maybe just under. I had watched him the night before pack away plates of spicy pork.
“Yes, as long as it is not killed for us!” he says, meaning: it is okay to sin, as long as the sin is one step removed.
Nestled among temples in the Himalayas, Buddhists like the Bhutanese are not the genteel vegetarians we imagine such fervent believers to be; in such high altitudes –– Bhutan, like neighboring Tibet, with whom it shares a religion, rises up to an average of 8000 feet above sea level –– vegetables other than potatoes and chilies are hard to grow and occasional meat with its associated fat and protein was essential to the diet.
Of course, it used to be that “occasional” meant when an old yak stumbled and fell to its death in a ravine. Nowadays in Bhutan, meat is imported from slaughterhouses located just across the border of their country, in Nepal, so the negative karma of killing does not happen in their land.
Tshering, years ago, was a monk, and is now one of 11,000 well-paid tour guides for his country, which attracts wealthy visitors who pay a tourist tax of two hundred and fifty dollars a day just for the privilege of setting foot in a country he was born in. This trip to Hong Kong, the last stop on his journey from Thailand to Malaysia to Singapore, was sponsored by one of his former tourist clients. In each city, different past clients put him up in five-star hotels.
He sees himself as utterly deserving the treatment because his karma is pure. “I am a good guide,” he says. “They like me. They are rich. So why not accept?”
That same day after watching the fish, we eat a seafood lunch, again paid for by someone he once led on a tour. She orders a crab, which the restaurant bids her to choose from a tank outside. Tshering refuses to go with her to pick out the one that dies.
But later, he does not hesitate to dig into the crab, or the fried squid.
Annie Dillard wrote, “I have thought a great deal about carnivorousness; I eat meat. These things are not issues; they are mysteries.”
That sentence is from an essay in which she watches a young deer tied to a stake outside a village in the Ecuadorian rain forest, struggling to escape. But the more the deer tries to escape, the more it becomes trapped, and then exhausted. Later Dillard realizes, while eating deer in that village, which is especially tender, that the lactic acid produced during muscular exertion tenderizes the meat. She had partaken in the suffering of the deer already and was not about to fault the villagers for their treatment of the deer.
Suffering is the state of the world, she is saying; what can she do? This is what the Buddhists also believe. But they also seem to believe that you can transcend this suffering, if only with your mind. If you reach inside. If you watch closely.
But sometimes I, who am drawn to Buddhism’s awareness of the light of the self, wonder if it notices the inside by obscuring the outside.
I once watched a black and white goat being prepared for sacrifice in a shared Hindu-Buddhist temple, the kind that pop up in Nepal, where the two religions often coexist. The sacrifice was in a Hindu part: a man and a woman who was presumably his wife prepared for the offerings to Kali, the Hindu goddess whose sacrificial date it was. Then another man, after all other preparations were done, brought a blade to the neck of the yin-yang goat and I made myself watch him cut, deep, into the fur.
I watched him slice the still-steaming flesh from top to bottom, watched the last movements of frantic hooves. Blood smelled like something ancient, mixed with incense. Kneeling, the man pulled the guts out of the goat with his hands and standing up, blew into the intestinal tube until it swelled like a translucent trumpet.
Again, my Buddhist friends who arrived at that part of the temple just at the end of the ritual covered their faces with their scarves, in disgust. As if they themselves had sinned. And now it was about them, not the goat.
I wanted to tell them: it is already happening. There is no use to look away.
And the difference between not watching versus watching is great: in a famous series of psychology experiments at Yale in the 1960’s, Stanley Milgram asked study participants to administer electric shocks to a person in another room if that person got answers to questions wrong, steadily increasing the voltage until the other person complained or even pleaded to be let off the hook, citing danger to their lives.
Milgram was testing the limits of human nature: unbeknownst to the participants, the person in the other room being shocked was an actor. How many participants would administer the shocks until the last electrical shock level, at 450 volts?
Milgram found it was 65 per cent. Yet when he put the shocker and the shockee together in the same room so they could see each other, that number dropped to 40 per cent: to watch the pain we are causing made people more aware of their decisions.
The Dalai Lama, who is not vegetarian because when he tried to be, his health deteriorated and his doctor told him he still needed to eat meat, told an interviewer that he used to switch the channel if an animal was being slaughtered on television. But nowadays he tells himself to watch it because at least then, something good would come of the killing.
I am watched.
I have not thought a great deal about carnivorousness; I eat meat.
The only extended period of time I purposely chose not to was one summer two years ago when I was in love with a smoker.
I thought, if he could give up nicotine, I could give up chicken wings –– how romantic that would be. And so we watched each other succeed: because he was the only one I wanted to watch me. Because I couldn’t do it for the animals and he couldn’t do it for his lungs, because the only way we can do anything, maybe, is if it’s connected to something –– someone –– Real.
Sometimes environmentalists or the other long-term thinkers of everything don’t get it when they say: think of the whole world. Think of your children, your future children, your future future future grandchildren, the goat-herders in Africa.
But what if we just thought of someone we loved and lived our lives as if they saw us right now, according to our own vows?
There is another part to the Milgram shock experiments, which I first heard on RadioLab in a program called “The Bad Show.” In another scenario, if the scientist in the room –– the watcher –– became just an ordinary person, sans a white coat, the participants’ shock level went down to 20 per cent. They, perhaps, were more afraid of being judged of cruelty by Someone Like Them, than by some higher logical authority.
A large part of the experiments was about the researcher in the room motivating the participants to administer higher and higher levels of shock, saying it was necessary for the study, essential even. And so people think it reveals that human nature is about obeying: goaded by the researchers, the participants would go on.
But every time, if it ever gets to the point where the researcher gives an absolute order to the participants, saying “you have no choice: you must continue,” every time, the participant rebels against the command. They will not shock someone if they have to; they will only do it if they can choose to.
Here the radio broadcasters pause: “So you’re saying they’re shocking these people because they think it’s worthwhile?”
The expert whom they’re interviewing replies, “They’re engaged with the task, they’re trying to be good participants, trying to do the right thing. They’re not doing something because they have to, they’re doing something because they want to, and that’s all the difference in the world.”
It is obligation we run from. It is something greater we run to.
When traditional environmentalists say imperatives like “must” or give dire predictions of what will happen if human behavior does not change, the ones who agree with the agenda will agree. But others will be turned away.
I met a foreign environmentalist in China who for years tried to get Chinese people on trains or cars to stop throwing trash out their windows. “You shouldn’t do that,” he would say. “You can’t litter like that!”
He said the people would actually throw more trash out the window, just to spite him. He took it as the bad character of the Chinese; the Chinese were probably thinking, who is this foreigner telling us what we can or cannot do? Who does he think he is, our watcher?
There is watching without, and watching within. There are things in this world I do not want to be protected from, most of all from myself.
What does it take to watch ourselves so closely we do not need anything else to watch us?
I watch what I cannot see.
There is not only watching, and being watched.
Paul Richards, a contemporary behavioral geographer, asks, “How do we pass that characteristic of early childhood where a thing out of sight is out of mind?”
Because the world is growing bigger. Because there is more out of sight worthy of our care.
The answer, says Richards, is to construct mental maps out of symbols and images, to impose a kind of unity to the world by extending the spaces we know to spaces we don’t and treating them as one.
In other words, to watch in the mind. In other words, to imagine.
Immanuel Kant argues that the reason many people are indifferent to newspaper reports is because people cannot locate where the news occurs: “They have no pictures of the land, of the sea and of the whole surface of the earth. . . [the newspapers] presuppose an extended concept of the whole of the surface of the earth.”
We may not always have the time or resources to travel. In the beginning of the 1800s when Kant lived, travel was a tedious task indeed; but by learning about different places in the world –– often through others’ experiences –– Kant was able to craft a caring for the world. The world beyond the daily phenomena we perceive and the limited places our slender soles step on.
Even with the supposed good we do, we do not know the true consequences of our actions. Some Buddhists believe that a cow, having been a good cow in this life, will move on to a better life after its slaughter. And others may say that Tshering or I or you may be a fish in our next lifetimes.
If I were a caught fish, I think I would at least want someone to look at, in full awareness, my death. As my blood slows and my scales fade, I wish at least that there will be eyes watching me, hot and caring for even just that moment.
We progress: we go from not watching to watching, to become the watched, to become the watched watching ourselves and transcending the watching. The end of watching is imagining: imagining ourselves as that fish, that foreign shore. We have to imagine our actions affecting something else precisely because we cannot see it. And those watched in our minds do not die, alone and in vain.