Suza: What rabbits taught me about compassion

Columnist Walter Suza illustrates what rabbits taught him about compassion. 

Walter Suza

Our new house in Ames provided space for family activities. In addition, parks and lakes around town provided opportunities for outdoor activities.

Everything looked wonderful, and I felt a great sense of accomplishment as a new homeowner. But I never expected that owning a home would give me the chance to learn lessons about compassion. The lesson started with an apple tree.

I had started the apple tree from seed. I kept the tree inside during winter with the hope of planting it in the backyard in spring. After winter, I placed the pot with my little apple tree in the back of the house. 

One morning, I went outside to water my apple tree and noticed something was wrong. The little plant was on its side with most of its bark gone. I wondered what had happened. I was confused. What might have been responsible for destroying my plant?

Then, a rabbit hopped through my yard, and I realized how my apple tree had been killed. No wonder young trees around the neighborhood were covered with plastic around the trunks. How silly of me to leave the plant outside and allow it to be killed by the rabbits.

As spring progressed, the grass in my yard became greener and denser, and I intended to keep it that way throughout the warm season. However, the increasing number of holes in the ground made the lawnmower ride rather bumpy. What was creating all these holes? I found out that rabbits were responsible for the holes and creating bare patches in my lawn. 

I became angry and less patient with the rabbits. 

Nonetheless, I tried to convince myself that all is OK and that rabbits will do what rabbits do. But the desire to prevent the rabbits from coming into my yard grew stronger. I felt even more frustrated with my unsuccessful attempts to throw shoes at the rabbits to scare them away. They just didn’t seem to care much. I knew I had to do something more drastic to keep them out of my yard for good.

My decision to get rid of the rabbits involved erecting a chicken-wire fence halfway up the wooden fence. It worked! The grass grew dense and the annoying bare patches disappeared. The holes in the ground had also been less noticeable, making the job of mowing less frustrating. I felt victorious for keeping rabbits off of my property. They’re just terrible creatures and must be controlled. 

Then came the opportunity that helped me realize the rabbits’ innocence as a species. 

I was mowing the grass one day when I witnessed something that looked like a big mouse emerging from the ground but flipped like a fish out of the water. I stopped the lawnmower and jumped to the side because I was frightened. I caught my breath and looked closer, and I noticed the creature was a baby rabbit as it gasped its last breath in front of me.

My lawnmower had killed the baby rabbit. I killed the baby rabbit! 

I felt sad for the baby rabbit and its horrific death. All this time, the rabbits I was fighting off my property were merely coming to the backyard for food and a place to nurture their offspring. But up until that moment of witnessing the dying baby rabbit, I had seen things differently. I had focused on seeing the rabbits as a problem and that made me more upset. Even though I realized that it was OK to protect my plants from being destroyed by rabbits, I didn’t have to wish all of them to be destroyed. 

Today, I’m thinking about my experience with the rabbits in the face of this moment in our nation’s history. We accuse each other of stealing an election. We see each other as threats to our ways of life. We see each other as invaders to our rights to free speech. We fear each other because we’ve lost trust in one another. It’s like our nation is a home, and we’re the homeowners trying to eradicate each other to protect the same home. 

Such intolerance leads us to labeling each other as liberals and dangerous or as conservative and hateful. When we do that, we build fences that divide and keep those we dislike out of our lives. But like rabbits seeking food and a place to nurture their young, at the core of each of us, we are all seeking to be OK in life. 

We pursue an education so we can advance ourselves to be able to realize the American dream. We seek a community where we can be accepted and find safety in expressing who we are as individuals. We care about our families and want to protect them from harm.

We are all pursuing the same goal in life. At the core of each person there’s a desire to avoid suffering and seek joy. 

Understanding this truth about our humanness can help us learn how to be compassionate. This is an important lesson as our nation charts the dark and muddy waters of COVID-19 and a contested election. 

We must all learn that when we keep others out, we deny each other a chance to be human.