A Response from Patricia Adams Farmer (Ecuador)
Songhe Wang tells the beautiful story of fear turned companionship, through a soul-to-soul contact with her son’s pets. Songhe now understands more than the birds in her home; she understands something about human nature, how fear works, why we hate and maim others, including creatures of the earth: understanding writ large and wide—increasing the size of her happiness, the size of her soul. I often speak of the Fat Soul, the soul that can stretch with understanding, making a way for happiness. And this wideness of soul happens in a soul-to-soul connection, the kind Songhe speaks of. Something opens up inside us when we dare to get close, like a tight fist of fear opening to touch the Other. Suddenly we begin to care about the well-being of creatures, and of the planet, and of people and cultures that seem scary and foreign.
As a process thinker, I feel a kinship with the Chinese saying, “Everything on this planet has a soul,” for life is alive with experience all the way down, what we sometimes call “panexperientialism.” I have written a short essay about how even rocks shine forth with a kind of soul. I call it The Numinosity of Rocks.
Whitehead would say that feeling doesn’t stop with humanity, nor are we the only creatures who possess soul. When we connect to the aliveness of all things in their way—and to the souls of animals in particular—we experience that sense of largeness—the Fat Soul—the joy of being part of the web of life. We know happiness.
I hope I can visit China one day and meet Songhe and her birds. I hope we can connect soul-to-soul from entirely different cultures and religion and ways of seeing the world. I see my soul growing larger and happier at the thought of it.
What the Tortoise and the Bird Taught Me
Songhe Wang (Harbin, China)
When I was a little girl in the 1970s, we lived in the countryside. People there kept cats or dogs, not for the same reasons as people do today. They kept cats to keep mice away; and they had dogs to alarm thieves. So at that time in our vocabulary, we didn’t have the word “pet”（in Chinese “宠物”)，for we took cats and dogs as tools or servants to make our life easy or safe. If they didn’t obey us, we beat them, which often took place.
Around hte 1990s, the wind of having pets blew to China from abroad. Following others, my son bought a small tortoise without my permission as I was a little afraid of small animals. When I saw my son feed it, talk to it, and play with it happily, something I couldn’t express in words crept into my heart. I noticed that the happiness the tortoise brought to my son was different from the happiness he got from his plastic or wooden toys. One day, we couldn’t find the little creature in our apartment. I was not afraid of it anymore, but somehow I felt very sad and missed it.
A few years ago, my son bought two birds. As I seldom played with them, I knew little about them. One day, after I got home from work, I found the birds out of the cage, flying around in the home. If my son had been home, he could easily have gotten them back to cage just by whistling. But I had little contact with them, so I was at a loss. While I was trying to catch one bird, the other one landed on my head or hand, screaming, and bit me. At that moment, to me, the two tiny birds were not birds, but two large humans: either a couple or a mother with her child in a dangerous situation. They protected each other and fought for one another. It was certain to me that neither would desert each other even at the cost of their own life.
I have heard that if one swan dies, her partner won’t leave her easily. So with the elephant. But I have never experienced it in person. After this event, I began to pay more and more attention to the birds. I noticed the moment I opened the door that they began to sing happily; once I let them out of the cage, they would follow me around in the room. It seemed they wanted to share things with me. So unlike before, instead of caging them, when I was home, I let them out.
The tortoise and the bird experiences let me understand: If you keep a distance from something, you can never get to know it well. Then fears and misunderstandings come out. As a tiny part of the whole world, we need to understand other things and connect with them. I mean if my son had not kept a tortoise at home, I would never have known how much happiness a pet can bring to children. It is not just fun; it is a dialogue between two lives; it is a connection between two different beings. When the birds follow me here and there in the home, I feel the same connection now.
When we are afraid of something, that indicates we are disconnected with it. In other words, because of ignorance, we fear, we complain, we even fight like I “fought” with the birds. Thus conflicts can happen between humans and animals; between humans; between cultures and between human beings and nature.
We have a saying: Everything on this planet has a soul（万物有灵）。By connecting our soul with that of the bird, the tree, the soil, etc., we can have more happiness, less misunderstanding, and less conflict in the future.