I feel so lucky that I have lived in an interspecies family starting at age eight. That is more than four decades of daily life shared side by side with feathers, fins, fur and shells….oh, and people too.
For at least three of those decades, I really saw homo sapiens as different from my nonhuman family members. I don’t like to admit it now, but I did.
Their instincts were “animal instincts.” My instincts were “people instincts” – and not instincts at all, but more like intellect disguised as instincts.
In other words, my birds, turtles, fish and dogs lived from their guts, their hearts.
I lived from my head.
Today, I don’t just think differently. I know differently. And when I say “I know,” I mean my head knows AND my heart knows. All of me now gratefully realizes that very little at all separates human animals from non-human animals.
Understanding we are more alike than we will ever be different has given me pieces of myself back I didn’t know I had lost.
Knowing that instincts are instincts, regardless who is feeling them, has also helped me feel so much more compassion for my own species, with whom I can all too easily fall out of patience with.
Here is just one example of how it has helped me.
Say, for instance, there are three tigers in a jungle – two males and one female. The female is ready to make baby tigers and both males are eager to assist. But before they can get what they want (the opportunity to pass along their DNA), they have to deal with each other.
So they get to it. They tussle. They battle. They growl and prowl and nip and jump and scratch and then outright bite until one tiger decides baby tigers are overrated and limps away.
When the fight breaks out, no one bats an eyelash (except maybe the lady tiger). The tiger police don’t show up with badges and tazers to break up the fight. Nobody sends the brawlers to jail for disturbing the peace. And when the winning male and his lady finally set about to do the deed, everyone minds their own business without any talk at all of public indecency.
Now just imagine, instead of two male tigers and one lady tiger, the scenario includes two male humans and one lady human (or two lady humans and one male human, or three lady humans, or three male humans, or whatever scenario makes the most sense for you in your life at the moment).
Point being, imagine this scene playing out between three homo sapiens instead of three tigers. In public. With witnesses. Who have webcams. And handcuffs. And handguns. And access to YouTube and CNN and lawyers.
You could also theoretically swap out the love interest for anything else two tigers (or two homo sapiens) might both want, such as prey or territory, and the scenario still works pretty much the same….at least until you introduce a certain pesky prefrontal cortex into the picture.
In my humble opinion, it is actually quite difficult being an animal who is a homo sapiens today.
Reason being, human animals are mostly not allowed to embrace or even tolerate let alone accept their animal instincts. We have rules and regulations and laws about all that. In a sense, we are persecuted and sometimes prosecuted on a daily basis for being animals in upright-walking bodies.
What I am really saying is that, in the absence of what “The Four Agreements” author Don Miguel Ruiz calls Â “the process of domestication,” (aka learning all the dos and don’ts and ins and outs of getting along in polite human society without going to jail), what else do we really have to fall back on other than the instincts all animals possess? Yet when we do this, when we default back to our initial survival-based instinctiveprogramming, life can get very hard for us very quickly.
Author, biologist and paleontologist Dr. Neil Shubin wrote a book called “Your Inner Fish” that literally changed the prescription in my glasses about all of this. When he was asked why he wrote the book, Dr. Shubin shared:
[I want people to get] how deeply connected we are to the rest of life on our planet. Our genes and cells and organs all contain evidence of this connection. It’s been discovered by cracking rocks in the field, studying genomes in laboratories, and looking at lots of other evidence. The outcome of these discoveries is seeing so clearly that we’re part of the tree of life.
Dr. Shubin’s book proves our entire anatomy can be traced back to the earliest forms of life on this planet. As he writes in “Your Inner Fish:”
The bodies of [other] creatures are often simpler versions of ours.Â
In the same way, the brains of other creatures are often simpler versions of our own brains.
For homo sapiens who have the eyes to see and the right education and training to put two and two together (and here I mean people like Dr. Shubin, not people like me), it is nearly impossible to miss the connection.
For example, there is a reason our base brain structure, the brain stem, is nicknamed “the reptilian brain.” Carl Sagan probably said it best:
Deep inside the skull of every one of us there is something like a brain of a crocodile. Surrounding the R-complex [reptilian brain] is the limbic system or mammalian brain, which evolved tens of millions of years ago in ancestors who were mammals but not yet primates. It is a major source of our moods and emotions, of our concern and care for the young. And finally, on the outside, living in uneasy truce with the more primitive brains beneath, is the cerebral cortex; civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex.
“Uneasy truce” is putting it mildly, in my opinion. Our intellect and our instincts are so frequently and intensely at war, in human history to date it has sometimes taken whole armies to work things out between the two and restore at least a semblance of peace.
Speaking of history,Â according to the American Museum of Natural History:
The human brain includes many regions that evolved long ago. Our older “lizard brain” parts keep our bodies working and provide basic survival motivations, while our newer “mammal brain” regions improve our emotions and memory. Our “primate brain,” with its large, wrinkly cortex, helps us plan, predict, and use language. All these regions work together. So while ancient urges still drive our behavior, we constantly think up new strategies for achieving these goals.
Are we the only animal on the planet who has such an evolved and involved brain structure? Many of us would like to think so.
But the truth is, we really still know very little about the vast majority of the other animals we share this planet with. What we do seem fairly clear about is that homo sapiens is the only life form on this planet with the specific brain structure we have that handles the specific functions it handles.
But this means only whatever meaning we assign to it. And it only works so long as we continue to live far outside the food chain of life, mostly exempt from the daily challenges of predation, starvation and extinction.
And in fact, at the moment our only major predator is….US.
No wonder we feel so disconnected from the world around us, its other occupants and even (especially) ourselves.
There are really only two avenues to take in this type of predicament.
We can either declare ourselves superior in brain if not in brawn and continue to justify our self-imposed separation.
Or we can open our eyes and our hearts, permit our minds to become humble and teachable once more, and admit we all need this planet to survive and it is time to become a more active participant in it – and on it – once again.
At this point I have to stop myself and realize you may quite justifiably be wondering what any of this has to do with mentoring and recovery. Allow me to explain.
I developed anorexia just before I turned 11 and bulimia just after I turned 18. Starting around age 26, I really began to tackle recovery in earnest. The first and biggest challenge I had to overcome was beating myself up, repeatedly and with increasing intensity, over all the years I “wasted” starving and harming my body.
I was so mad at myself! I was so mad at the world that created an environment apparently inhospitable to the form I was born into! I was so mad that now I had to recover from something I genetically could not control! I was just so mad!
Guess who helped me drop the unproductive anger and get on with the business of rejoining all the rest of the struggling, evolving life forms on this planet?
Nature. Sure, some of that nature was my fellow homo sapiens – in particular, my human mentors (“mentoring” angle, check). Through sharing their personal stories of tackling and overcoming challenges, they convinced my higher faculties that I, too, could be successful if I pursued my recovery goals (“recovery” angle, check). (They also taught me that, at its most basic level, my eating disorder could be viewed as a misguided survival move, and one that, oddly enough, worked for me at least temporarily.)
But it was my non-human mentors – nature, trees, birds, animals, flowers, the ocean, the sand, the forest, the sky, the moon and the stars – that gave me the motivation to heal. They awakened my awareness of connection to all life and to everyone and everything around me, and that is what convinced me I belonged here and was wanted and needed and that there was a me-sized space that was reserved just for me here on this round blue planet we all share.
I needed to know I had a greater family than the mean bullies in grade school and the meaner bullies in middle school and the exceptionally mean bullies in high school, college and the “real world” who just didn’t like me for whatever reason. They didn’t like me so I didn’t like me.
Then I realized nature liked me. Nature shared its secrets with me. Nature got so excited it opened its wings and flapped and chirped and jumped up and down on its perch when I walked into a room. Nature ran up to me and begged for attention and treats and licked my feet (or sat on them) so I wouldn’t leave.
Even more importantly, I loved nature back. And, well, love…..there is no other stronger motivation to do anything than for the sake of love.
We homo sapiens often just don’t understand ourselves that well. Or at least I know I don’t. For example, I used to not understand at all why sometimes I can get so mad at someone I want to run over them with my car.
I don’t do it, of course, because….domestication. I know if I do it I will quickly go someplace I do not want to go where there is no nature and lots of bullies just like the ones I already worked so hard to leave behind. Because I understand this intellectually, my animal instinct to KILL to preserve my space, my turf, my rights, my life, my sanity never makes it beyond the enormous prefrontal cortex that surrounds my mammalian and reptile brains.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
And so I now have more compassion for the violent ones, the killers, the thieves, the home-wreckers, the abusers, the haters, the ones who just don’t know yet that those instincts do not mean there is something wrong with them or that they have no choice but to act on them. Those instincts are supposed to be there. They are in all of us. And once upon a time, a long time ago in a land far far away, they helped at least some of us survive to become the so-called enlightened, evolved species we are today.
Those of us who want to live in a world where our only two daily choices are “eat or get eaten” willingly comply with the domestication process. We do the work to learn the rules of engagement required to live in secure, insect-free, temperature-controlled structures where the only “hunting” we have to do is inside our refrigerators.
The rest of us are still learning, still choosing, still thinking things over. They are still not convinced domestication is all it is cracked up to be, or perhaps they are not even sure what it is and how to use it. Maybe their mentors taught them another way – a way that implies there is no way out of the food chain of life so they’d better just get on with it and do what needs to be done.
I don’t know. I have never stood in that particular set of shoes.
What I do know is, we are all – ALL of us – more alike than different. We are all meant to be here. We are all wanted and needed. We all have instincts as well as intellects that make us who we are. The sooner we accept all of who we are, the sooner we make choices that finally make good use of that enormous modern brain that is making our heads so big and heavy.
With great respect and love,
NOTE: Please know I realize how very sensitive some readers may be to the thoughts and ideas in this blog post….especially if you are reading this and have been on the wrong side of some form of abuse, violence or predation by our own species. Once again, I just want to reiterate – I am NOT condoning or excusing ANYthing that could cause harm to another being on this planet. I just truly believe that more hate isn’t going to get us anywhere close to where a little more compassion might. Peace.Â