Not All Babies are Beautiful — Says Fable

Every morning the news brings some report of the violence we are committing against one another. It makes my heart hurt. And even if we can find a way to cease our quarrels, the seeds of the next one are likely already sown.

A few words on why we’re in this mess from the 17th century.

The Eagle and the Owl ceased their ages-long quarrel and embraced each other in their rush of newfound goodwill. One swore on his king’s honour and the other on his owl’s honour that they would never eat each other’s young again, no matter what.

Do you know my little ones? Minerva’s bird said.

No, said the Eagle.

Oh too bad, replied the sad bird, I fear for their skin then. It will be by sheer luck if I manage to save them. As a king, you don’t concern yourself with who or what. Kings and gods are all the same, no matter what anyone says. Goodbye to my babies, if they run into you.

Paint me a picture of them, the Eagle said, or show them to me. I won’t touch them, on my life.

The Owl said, My little ones are adorable, beautiful, perfectly proportioned, and more appealing in all ways than any of their friends. You’ll recognize them easily from this description. Don’t forget. Remember it well, so that you don’t bring The Fates into my nest.

It happened that the gods gave the Owl a new brood. One lovely evening he was out on the hunt. In a little corner of a rock pile, or maybe it was in a hole in the wall of a dilapidated farmhouse (I don’t know which of the two), the Eagle happened upon a nest of monstrous little creatures, hideously ugly, bad tempered, grim looking, with shrewish voices.

These little ones are definitely not my friend’s, the Eagle said. I’ll eat them.

The gallant didn’t do things by half. His meals were never light.

The Owl returned to find nothing left but his little ones’ feet. His beloved babies. Alas! — of all things. He complained bitterly, begging the gods to punish the brigand, who caused his grief.

One said to him, You have no one to accuse but yourself. Or more specifically, the universal law that dictates that we find those who are like us to be beautiful, well proportioned and in all ways lovable. That’s the picture you painted of your little ones for the Eagle. And did they actually possess even one of those traits?

We all think our little birdlings, really our whole tribe, are more beautiful, smart, kind, etc. You can insert whatever descriptor you want. Our implicit biases blind us to the merits of others and, equally insidiously, inflate the fine qualities of those we consider to be like us. And the effect extends, because it turns out that our empathy may only reach the borders of our us-ness and end there.

In his provocatively titled book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Paul Bloom argues that empathy (which he defines as this implicit bias-driven ability to feel another’s pain the way you feel your own) can actually be a destructive force, causing us to prize our own above others, to make decisions that favour an individual, even if they neglect an entire population. In effect, he is pointing out that it is empathy that creates an “us” and therefore a “them”. And isn’t that one of our gravest challenges, the root of violent conflict and hatred, the belief that some mythical “we” knows and is better than some equally amorphous “they”?

Bloom proposes compassion as the antidote, which he defines as the ability to respect and honour another’s pain, even if it is unlike your own, possibly unlike the pain of anyone you’ve known. In this way, he writes, we rise above our emotion-driven implicit biases and attain a more rational understanding of others and are able to make decisions, which result in the highest good for the most people.

For some time now I’ve been a bit obsessed by compassion. Rooting out its precise meaning. Finding what distinguishes it from love and kindness, or to be more Buddhist, lovingkindness. Setting aside the Eagle’s eagle-ness and his need to eat for a moment, because, of course, LaFontaine was using these animals as archetypes of human nature, compassion would dictate that the Eagle not eat anyone’s young, whether beautiful or ugly in his eyes.

We need to stop eating each other’s young. All the weaponry in the world will not protect us. Violence pours kerosene on its own self in a never-ending cycle. To protect humanity (and all living beings), we must see our own and others through the same lens. Let compassion be our eyes.

What are these Fableogs?


Originally published at on November 3, 2017.

Tagged in Violence, Fable, Compassion, Empathy, Conflict

By Mina Samuels on November 3, 2017.

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Exported from Medium on March 17, 2018.



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