You find all those Instagram posts offering Gentle Reminders pretty corny and obvious most of the time. And sometimes they’re corny and seem obvious, but really they’re way off-base. They substitute personal decision-making as a solution for systemic and institutional problems, and you’ve moved beyond that framework a long time ago.
You see yet another one that seems of a piece with all those. It is a series of slides illustrated with peaceful pastel foxes. You are becoming allergic to this type of thing, but you swipe through it anyway, because it’s something to do.
The slides remind you that you are an animal, and at this time of year, most animals are not speeding up, they are slowing down. (You take a look at your usually-hyperactive dog sleeping the day away on the couch and figure that maybe there’s something to all that. That there might be a larger rhythm at work, beneath anything you’ve practiced hearing. ) The foxes illustrate the point that the animals are storing food for winter, they are only venturing out during the scant few hours of sunlight, and in the lengthening darkness they are eating their hearts out and sleeping soundly and keeping warm.
You are probably not doing that, the slides suggest. You are probably trying to do too much—cramming in desperate workouts and holiday plans and end-of-year to-do lists. If you are eating your heart out you are feeling guilty about it, or perhaps even angry about it. Your job is trying to get as much out of you as possible before you check out mentally; your family probably is, too. (Which is fulfilling in a way your job isn’t but might be draining in a way your job isn’t.)
But you are an animal, the slides remind you. All the willpower in the world can’t overcome the basic facts of your biology. You are a unique one, certainly, blessed with a real consciousness and the capacity for abstract thought and the use of complex tools. But your bodily systems were designed long before the world they live in, and there is only so much they can do.
You think about your place in the animal kingdom, and how maybe the a priori certainty with which you were taught that you existed at the top of it all was extremely misguided.
You pity the other animals, who are ignorant of their mortality, and so never learn the power of desperation.
You envy the other animals, who are ignorant of their mortality, and so never feel guilty for slowing down.
You read a poem that implores you to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. You are still trying to make your peace with what that might be. You begin to realize this will always be so. You read a poem that says I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. You wonder if there’s a recipe for that other than fake it til you make it, the probable truth of which you have always resented. You pity the other animals, who do not read poetry. But even dung beetles can navigate by the stars, so perhaps they don’t need your pity.
You are tougher than other animals in so many ways. Some obvious, some less so. When caught in snares and traps of others’ making you tend to fight your way out.
You are weaker than other animals in so many ways. Some obvious, some less so. A porcupine can eat every rose hip off a thorny bush and feel nothing but the sweet taste of fruit. You would complain of its scratchy fibers in your throat if you tried the same. To say nothing of the myriad tears and pokes in your skin.
You read a book which tells you that Everyone should get at least one good look at the eyes of a man who finds himself rising toward what he wants to pull down to himself. You wonder for how many people you have been that good look. You pity the other animals, again, for not having books, and maybe this time you’ve found a pity worth feeling.
You watch a video of a single-celled organism dying. You wonder what dying feels like for an organism with no brain and no nerves. It looks to you like a slow unraveling, a final release of its matter back into the world. You recall a song that talks of death as returning to the chorus of the universal sound. You’ve never seen a clearer illustration of that idea than this invisible speck unwinding everything it ever was, like an ancient star.
You are reminded that you are an animal. You are an animal with the capacity to wonder. You are an animal with the capacity to wonder about your wondering, which is really something, if you think about it. And you begin to realize that the more you wonder about yourself, the kinder you might become to yourself, which might be just what you need to get through another long winter.
Thanks, as always, for reading. I’ll talk to you next week.
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