My own tendency to judge (both others and myself) has long mystified me.
On the one hand – yuck. A life spent judging self and others isn’t much of a life at all.
Yet at times, judging others has also felt like it might serve some evolutionary purpose, perhaps even with my safety foremost in mind.
By this I mean – let’s say I am a lady bald eagle.
I tend to mate for life, which means I should choose my mate with great care.
Here, I want to choose a male who is coordinated (otherwise, we both might die during our unique courtship “spiral air dance”).
I also want a mate who is affectionate and persistent (no one respects a suitor who gives up too quickly).
Best of all, I want a mate who is a good hunter, since raising (and feeding!) hungry chicks is hard work.
So in the part of my brain that is wired to choose, as soon as mating season comes around, I am fully engaged in constantly judging, judging, judging.
The same may hold true for us human animals even in our top-of-the-food-chain, big-brained and oh-so-evolved state.
Perhaps we still judge with an eye towards survival.
Certainly we have evolved to judge so we can not just survive but thrive by selecting only the best – the best suitor, the best nesting site, the best victuals, the best of everything.
So then what if that part of our brain just keeps on judging…whether we actually need it to or not?
What if that ancient core of our brain is totally unaware that human life today is not nearly so dire – that it is not quite so absolutely necessary to notice and point out every little (real or perceived) flaw, foible, or fault in those around us?
What if we can’t even really be blamed for judging others – after all, it is in our DNA?
About a month ago, I acted upon a long-delayed dream.
I became Mommy to a hatchling red-foot tortoise named Malti.
Malti is an Indian girl’s name that means “small fragrant jasmine flower.”
She is very small indeed (3″ from nose to tail tip).
Her fragrance comes in the form of trust.
Even as I type, she is sleeping off her lunch in a mossy corner of her new habitat – totally trusting that her every need will be provided for…..by me.
I, on the other hand, am cramming on YouTube like only a newbie turtle mommy can, ever hopeful of keeping this baby alive for one more day.
We are making a lot of progress, Malti and I, but I have to give her most of the credit.
All his life, my grandpa loved “playing the horses.”
Each summer we would visit my grandparents at their home near Boston, MA, and Grandpa would spend every morning the same way – hunched over at the kitchen table, working out the odds the old fashioned way (yes, with pencil and paper!), and deciding which horse most deserved his precious pennies.
He also loved taking my brother and me to the track to watch the races. Adam, being naturally competitive, enjoyed betting – and enjoyed winning his bets even more.
Me? I just felt sorry for the horses. Those black blinders (today called “blinkers”) looked uncomfortable. For that matter, so did the bridle, the saddle, the bit, and the itty bitty man perched up top.
Right now I am reading “Mind of the Raven” by Bernd Heinrich.
It is great bedtime reading, because instead of attempting to go to sleep while worrying about my bank balance or whether I’ll be single forever, I can go to bed worrying about whether I can finish this 350+ page tome before the library sends the angry check-out police to my door.
Plus, corvids just fascinate me. According to Science Magazine, corvids (crows, ravens, magpies, jays) are capable of mental time travel, social cognition (whatever that is), and tool manufacture. According to fellow corvid enthusiast and author Candace Savage,
Crows, ravens, magpies, and jays are not just feathered machines, rigidly programmed by their genetics. Instead, they are beings that, within the constraints of their molecular inheritance, make complex decisions and show every sign of enjoying a rich awareness.
Cooooool. Plus – I just have to say it – I rather think I already knew that.
PBS’ “Ravens – Discover the Brainpower of the Bird in Black” features studies by Heinrich and others that prove corvids are as smart as canines. Not only that, but Heinrich has observed how his ravens (those he raises and those he studies in the wild) have distinct dining preferences – for instance, these meat-loving avians turn up their beaks at a snack of fresh raw beef liver, but hone right in on scattered potato chips.
In my last post, I introduced you to a great book called “Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond” by Meg Daley Olmert.
Of course, this book addresses the mutual benefits to humans and non-humans of making and maintaining close-knit cooperative bonds.
What I did not expect to encounter within its pages was evidence to support that plants can achieve the same.
I love plants. However, the feeling has never seemed particularly mutual.
Even my highest best intentions has not produced any surefire way to keep the plants in my household either green or alive. So imagine my surprise when I read the following:
Susan Dudley and Amanda File of McMaster University in Ontario found that plants, like humans and animals, are capable of social recognition. Plants actually recognize other plants that are related to them, and when they see another plant as kin, they refrain from competing with it for root territory. It is not known whether plants can extend any sort of social recognition to the humans who care for them, but James Cahill of the University of Alberta and his colleagues found that they do respond to human touch.
I just finished another great book – “Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond” by Meg Daley Olmert.
Given that it is Valentine’s Day today, and my feathery sidekick and I are celebrating 13 (loud but) blissful years together, I thought the book would make for a perfect post.
The premise of “Made for Each Other” is simple: humans and animals have been bonded together for centuries – until now.
The last 100 years has dramatically changed our ability and need to be connected to our non-human helpmeets in practical ways (think farming, milking, construction).
As this bond slowly breaks down, it is changing us – and not for the better.
I woke up this morning feeling a combination of some of my less-favorite feelings.
For instance, I felt sad. And depressed. And sorry for myself. And stuck. And bored.
I was really starting to dig into these feelings, and I felt myself sinking….and sinking….
Then my bird, Pearl, started singing to his reflection in my bathroom clock. I absentmindedly said to him, “Awww, Pearl – you are so happy! You are so ready to start your day!”
All of a sudden, as the sound of my own words caught my attention, I realized that I was right.
Pearl was so happy.
He had no particular reason to be happy – at least not by human standards. There was no special news waiting in his email inbox, no romantic date planned for later in the evening, no big fat paycheck being auto-deposited into his bank account, no big social plans for the weekend.
But he was happy…..anyway.
It occurred to me that I could be too. I could stop worrying about whether I have enough friends or enough cash or enough plans or enough romance in my life. I could just drop the expectation of “being happy when…” and be happy now.
Even better, I could do it with a happiness buddy – because I already happen to have a personal live-in happiness mentor who ushers in each and every morning by sitting on the window ledge chirping oh-so-happily to his own reflection.
This made me feel better – and happier. I realized I didn’t have to wait on big news or big plans or big romance as an excuse to allow myself to feel happy. I could feel happy just because I could.
And now it occurs to me that this is also why I always tell folks at my presentations to get a pet (if they don’t already have one, that is).
Pets are great for self-esteem, great for inspiration, great for mentoring – and, as it turns out, also reliably great at enhancing happiness.
Today’s Takeaway: Do you ever …
I love how sometimes, when I am reading one book, that leads to another and then another book….and before I know it I am four or five books into a cycle I started about a completely different topic for a completely different reason.
Take “Divorce Among the Gulls: An Uncommon Look at Human Nature,” for example.
This slim volume came to me courtesy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Committed,” a book about how humans date, mate, and (often, unfortunately) split.
Gilbert, on the verge of being forcefully hitched as she writes, uses “Committed” as a tool to research the crap out of marriage, hoping to find some kind of magical reassurance that hers (the second for both of them) won’t suck. Or disappear. Or both.
In one chapter, she mentions how incompatibility is now thought to be at least partially biological. The example she cites is seagulls.
Other than the parrot – specifically the cockatiel – the seagull has to be my all-time top favorite bird. So of course I rushed right out to locate and acquire such essential reading.
I enjoyed the chapter on gulls immensely, but found the chapter on roof rats (scientifically, “Rattus rattus”) even more illuminating.
If you’ve been following anything I write for more than one post you already know I am a dyed-in-the-wool-from-birth bird lover. If the bird happens to have a hooked bill and squawks like a parrot, even better.
My folks are as ardent about dogs as I am about birds. In fact, our extra-long brown standard dachshund, J.P. Morgan, has earned the title of “honorary bird” in my book. Morgan and I share a birthday and a love of naps, Cheerios, and soft fuzzy blankets. Clearly we’re related.
Every year we travel to Cape Cod for a family vacation. During my vacation I read – a lot. Usually I read a huge stack of books about birds but this year I branched out. My first book was called “The Divinity of Dogs” by Jennifer Skiff. The book is divided into sections like love, comfort, intuition, healing, gratitude, loyalty, passing, compassion, and forgiveness. I can share that I was feeling more of each of these things with each passing chapter.
The subtitle of the book is “true stories of miracles inspired by man’s best friend.” The stories – compiled from dog lovers around the globe – include amazing tales of how dogs saved people from suicide, cancer, seizures, heartbreak, isolation, disabling illness, and more. Some storytellers are dog lovers from birth. Others came to love dogs through a chance life-saving encounter at just the right moment. Over and over the storytellers refer to their canine sidekicks as “soulmates” and “best friends,” “confidantes,” “mentors,” “teachers,” and “the love of their life.”
Since I feel that way about my bird, Pearl, I can wholeheartedly relate. It is hard not to love a being that begins screeching for you to come right back before you even leave the room.
One of my favorite stories from “The Divinity of Dogs” is by a storyteller named Nancy Kaiser. She wrote, “Animals live fully in the moment; they let go of their past and don’t drag it around with them. This is one of the greatest lessons they offer humans.” Of her dogs, Hana and Saba, she writes, “Because of them, I feel worty of being loved, I’m able to give love without the fear of being hurt, I have forgiven my ex, and most important, I now love myself.”
But then again, I have learned these same lessons from Pearl.
Another one of my favorite stories is from storyteller Vivian Axmacher, dog parent to Mr. Handsome, a long-haired Chihuahua found discarded from a puppy mill. He was full of infection and his mouth was so sore he couldn’t eat. A team of kind souls nursed him back to health, all the while vying for the honor of adopting him. Vivian eventually won out, and of her tiny mentor she writes, “I have learned a lot from Mr. Handsome. He has reminded me of the evil in some and the goodness in others. He has shown me that cruelty can destroy the body but not the soul. He has taught me that when life seems difficult and the pain is more than I think I can bear, if I just believe in life and what I deserve from it, if I just keep wagging my tail, everything will be all right.”
But perhaps the most moving story of all – for me personally at least – came from the author herself.
I don’t often gravitate towards stories about pigs.
But Sy Montgomery is one of my favorite authors (with her book “Birdology” being a particular favorite).
If she wrote it, I will probably want to read it….and she wrote a story about her pet hog that - according to the New York Times bestseller list numbers – everybody else but me has already read.
Which of course made me curious.
As I cracked open the book and scanned the first few pages of “The Good Good Pig,” it occurred to me that never once – til now – had I bothered to contemplate whether or not a pig’s life can be “extraordinary.”
Apparently it can.