Gorillas Can tell Us Whether The World is Good or Evil

If you ever find yourself on an airplane near a screaming child who is thrashing around in  his seat, desperate to zig-zag through its narrow aisles, you’ll discover there are two kinds of people in this world:

  1. Those who think the child’s behavior is intolerable, angry about children being on planes at all, and
  2. Those who think the first type of people are horrible, because For heaven’s sake, weren’t they once children themselves?

The crazy thing is: both of them are right.

Just ask a parent. We know better than anyone just how infuriating children can be. They scream, they whine, they repeatedly kick you when they’re too hyperactive to sit still before suddenly pretending their legs don’t work when you need to get somewhere, to the point where sometimes “You need a time-out” is actually code for “I need a time-out, before you throw that toy in my face one more time and I end up teaching you the rules of the jungle.”

Any parent who says otherwise is lying. Possibly to themselves and probably out of guilt, because there are two kinds of parenting experts in this world:

  1.  Those who believe children are all born perfect, eager to please us, and will only be derailed by our failure to love or support them enough, and
  2. Those who believe kids begin as sinful, selfish sociopaths who will one day wreak holy terror on the rest of us, unless they’re properly guided with enough firm, consistent discipline.

And in this case, I believe neither extreme is right.

Kids are BOTH. Loving and selfish, wild and innocent, insecure and bold… all human potential rests in these budding balls of hyperactive, overemotional people-larvae. Child development experts might act as though raising children were a science, but I believe it’s more of an art form. You’re the maestro of a complex orchestra, making sure the delicate winds and higher strings are neither shrill nor overpowered, while the thumping bass gives enough structure without drowning out all of the nuances.

And OF COURSE we were all children once. We still are. When we look at them, we’re looking at ourselves… before we learn better ways of hiding our motivations or understanding the unspoken social rules about defining our place in the hierarchy.

Do you really believe wanting an impressive handbag or car is sophisticated or altruistic?

Do you think tailgating a slower driver to teach them a lesson represents a practical, mature attitude?

Do you think fighting for a closer parking space is a productive use of our energy?

When we deal with children, we’re dealing with human beings stripped down to the essential truths. Yes, child brains aren’t fully developed, but the foundation is there if you’re brave enough to consider it.

People who reject the theory of evolution are often put off by the idea that we descended from primates, even though primates are incredibly intelligent animals. If you dig into it enough, it gets harder to reject the theory…

koko.jpgLast week, I watched “A Conversation with Koko,” a PBS special from 1999 about a lowland gorilla who learned over 1100 words in sign language. Since gorillas can’t “talk” the way people do (based on gorillas’ physical limitations) this vast language acquisition allowed her to communicate with her teacher, Dr. Penny Patterson, in ways previously unknown.

As a parent, I found myself weirdly identifying with Dr. Patteerson. We were both dealing with wild subjects who could throw fits and poo with reckless abandon, yet were probably more capable of tender emotions than the subject’s rough exterior would suggest.

Koko the gorilla liked to paint, as do my toddler daughters. None of them paint with much sophistication, yet they want to express their creative vision in a way we should probably appreciate and respect.

Koko invented new words, calling her hairbrush a “head-scratch,” for example. My daughters also invent new words, calling socks with stars on them “outer space rocket socks.”

Koko adopted a kitten. She named her “All-ball,” because she would ball up. When the kitten died, Dr. Patterson tried to explain it. Koko quietly nodded before Dr. Patterson left the room. She closes the door to Koko’s room, and then you can hear Koko screaming in agony on the video. She holds it together until the moment she thinks she is alone, then sobs and wails in grief over her lost kitten.

And this is an important point, I think. Gorillas are animals, and remain animals even though they are our closest relatives in the animal world. They have no reason to care about anything that isn’t selfish or self-sustaining, yet Koko was tortured by the thought of never seeing her little kitten again.

Koko used practical signs to get through her day, but sometimes she would go off script and ask her trainer something impractical..

She would say:

“Koko is good. Koko is a good gorilla. Love me. Love Koko. I’m good.”

And there, folks, is the window into our soul. And the souls of our children.

We want to be loved. We want to be good. Despite all of our flaws and selfishness, we desperately want people to love us. Because it matters.

And if it matters to primates, then it definitely matters to kids and to the rest of us.

Kids are imperfect, but they want to be loved.

And maybe the way we react to them says a lot about how we feel about ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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