#115: Are We Anthropomorphizing Human Beings?

I know, this is probably a very strange question, but I have been pondering on this a while. Are we anthropomorphizing human beings?

Typically, those who really care about animals and claim that they are feeling, intelligent beings not so dissimilar from us, are being admonished not to anthropomorphize animals, not to treat them as similar to human beings.

Now, I have had the privilege of spending quite some time with different animals. Pets, of course, are easy – mine have been cats. Of course, you feel a special connection to your pet. Cats are magnificent in their elegance, somehow comical in their need to be taken care of by us – despite their grandiose and somewhat snobbish displays of their own superiority, and great teachers in patience and affection. If you haven’t seen a cat look at you with utter love and satisfaction, you haven’t lived. But I digress.

For quite some years now, I have been living in a neighborhood with white-tailed deer, grey squirrels, various birds (I have a list!), raccoons, etc. It’s a riot sometimes. This has taught me to see the world as a shared space, and my backyard is not really mine alone. After a while, you learn that deer are intelligent beings, that they quarrel with each other, that they can be affectionate, curious, skittish, etc. Once I noticed a baby deer crying for their mother, lost and afraid. It’s a heart-wrenching sound. The little one went away, and a few minutes another deer arrived that seemed like the mother. She looked at me, I gestured into the direction of the fawn, and she went there – following my gesture, it seemed. I could, of course be wrong. She could have picked up a trace, heard the call, whatever. But I cannot shake the feeling that she indeed understood. I have had several other similar encounters where I am sure that they understood me.

Is it too much to think that this could be possible?

Sometimes, a squirrel watches us eat through the window. They occasionally pick up scraps from the birdfeeder, and a baby squirrel has been raiding the feeder regularly. When they see us eat, they look at us, demandingly. They know what we are doing, and they want something too. The baby seemingly enjoys seeing us chase them off the feeder, coyly looking back at us, knowing full well that we cannot watch the feeder forever. Oh well.

The birds have a breakfast, lunch and dinner rush at the feeder. When it’s empty, they let me know, and when I have filled it, they announce it to the neighborhood. Nuthatches are fearless and curious, chickadees demanding, and Jays know they own the place.

Have I been at home too much during the pandemic? Maybe. But having spent more time with the animals out there, I cannot help but wonder why we should not recognize their faculties. We are all products of evolution, we all share vast amounts of DNA, we have all evolved to live in a much similar world (same planet, different but similar ecosystems). Why wouldn’t it be surprising to see similarities?

We assume all humans are somehow alike – but we don’t want to admit that we are animals, and that animals are somehow like us also. Many American Indian stories talk of animals as people. Indigenous peoples all over the world have been living in much closer community in nature for much longer than those of us who have been able to insulate ourselves more from nature. But we are missing out if we lose that connection.

If we are told not to anthropomorphize animals, this is probably done in order to allow us, mentally, to still be able to eat them. In understand. I am not a vegetarian. I would prefer not to eat my animal friends around me though. But even predator and prey can have a connection, and can develop an understanding of each other as equal when it comes to the dignity of life. You can still eat animals, but you should treat them with dignity and respect till the end – which is something human beings don’t seem to do any more. When a predator catches their prey, they typically kill it quickly, almost gently. No need to have someone suffer.

Now, I can go two different ways with this here. Either assume that we should not anthropomorphize humans, because they would not be able to live up to their own standards of deliberate and emotional intelligence. Or, I could assume that being human isn’t what it’s hyped up to be.

Who is massively contributing to a loss in biodiversity, and to climate change? It’s the human animal. Maybe here is a third alternative: Anthropomorphizing animals is an insult to them. They are so much smarter than us, it may seem after all…

#114: Be Quiet Sometimes

Our world has become increasingly noisy in too many ways. There appears to be the ever-present need to drown out the quiet, to avoid silence, to not ever sit still doing nothing. We are surrounded by music, traffic, conversation, and a constant flow of messages. No wonder we cannot concentrate on anything any longer.

Every animal is able to just sit or stand in nature and to take it all in. Surely, they also listen for predators or prey, and I do not want to romanticize nature unnecessarily. And yet, I have seen birds sitting on the birdfeeder, having eaten, just sitting there, looking at the world. I have been able to have quiet moments with deer, just standing there, seeing each other, sharing a moment. I have seen squirrels just resting in the trees. And certainly, cats are the masters of the moment. A cat knows how to maximize their serenity, where to sit to smell, hear, see, and feel all the things surrounding them in a specific space, quietly.

This ability to just be is what some people seek when meditating, exercising, or praying. But as a society, we seem to have been able to make even these activities increasingly noisy in order to overlay our inner sense of unrest, of unease, of war within ourselves. Whatever we see on so-called social media is just a reflection of our inability to just be at peace with ourselves. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to share our thoughts with others, but should we not do so after serious and – how dare I say this – loving reflection?

The ability – or inability – to just be quiet, to just take in, to listen, to just be present, to just be, may well have a connection to our ability to approach the world and others with a sense of love, of acceptance. We like to speak of tolerance, but tolerance just means to tolerate someone else, to acknowledge that we have to make peace with their presence in our world. Acceptance is something more. To truly accept somebody else means to approach them with a sense of love, of seeing them as a coequal and necessary partner in the world, to recognize the other as the same as yourself. We need to allow ourselves to be truly spiritually intimate with not just each other but the world as such, in order to truly be at peace.

Martin Buber (1923) speaks of the need to approach the world on the premise of the “I and Thou,” Erich Fromm (1956 ) speaks of the “Art of Loving,” and Theodor Adorno (1966) calls for a different style of “Education after Auschwitz.” All these texts were written under the impact of either World War I or II. Their idea are thus not trivial, and they all call out for a subject- rather than object-centered approach to our fellow (human) beings. Should we think that this message would be somehow less urgent and outdated right now, we would be very mistaken.

We are all together in this world, and even though we may disagree, even though we may have to fight over issues, we should always accept each other as fellow beings in the universe. In order to be able to feel this and truly not just to be at peace but to be able to create and maintain it, we may need to shut out all worldly noise once in a while and see – and feel – that we are all just living in the same world, in the same moment, and that we are, indeed, one.

#107: How (Not) to Be Unhappy

There are many ways to be unhappy. For more, I recommend you read Paul Watzlawick’s excellent book The Situation Is Hopeless But Not Serious (The Pursuit of Unhappiness), still relevant after all these years. For example:

A man wants to hang a painting. He has the nail, but not the hammer. Therefore it occurs to him to go over to the neighbor and ask him to lend him his hammer.
But at this point, doubt sets in. What if he doesn’t want to lend me the hammer? Yesterday he barely spoke to me. Maybe he was in a hurry. Or, perhaps, he holds something against me. But why? I didn’t do anything to him.
If he would ask me to lend him something, I would, at once. How can he refuse to lend me his hammer? People like him make other people’s life miserable. Worst, he thinks that i need him because he has a hammer. This has got to stop!
And suddenly the guy runs to the neighbor’s door, rings, and before letting him say anything, he screams: “You can keep your hammer, you bastard!”

(Watzlawick, Paul. The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious: (the Pursuit of Unhappiness). United States, Norton, 1993. page 39)

That’s it! That’s what we do! Ain’t it grand? No, seriously. Sometimes, we can’t seem to help ourselves seeing the worst in people and in situations. It is certainly easier, and sometimes, it is mandated.

But there is a difference between unhappiness on the one side, and on the other, carefulness, mindfulness, realism, or fear. These are not all the same things. If I know a certain danger exists, denying that danger would not be making me happy, on the contrary. If I realize the seriousness of a situation, I am preparing myself to react appropriately, and thus minimize unhappiness. If I am mindful of my own or other people’s limitations, I am setting up realistic expectations rather than expecting an unfulfillable fairy-tale. If I am careful, I care about making the right decision.

Unhappiness and happiness may probably be described as outcomes of false expectations and of a flawed attitude towards life. If you expect everything to fail, that may be realistic sometimes, but you lose hope. If you expect everything to work out, you may be eternally hopeful, but such a pollyannish attitude sets you up for failure more easily than you would have hoped.

As we are living in a time where challenges about – a still persisting global pandemic, the crises following the necessary strategies for pandemic abatement, as well as climate change and extreme weather events, refugee crises, political crises, terrorism, domestic troubles, economic crises, maybe even an asteroid with higher likelihood of hitting our planet than we might be comfortable with; all of these certainly can very well contribute to a sense of doom. How, in all honesty, could we possibly be happy in all this?

If we focus on all of these, on the abundance of dangers and threats, we are pursuing unhappiness. Looking at history can be healing. Despite everything, our problems are manageable. Pandemic? Get vaccinated, wear the mask, distance, be hygienic, etc. Climate change? More difficult, but we can all do our part to protect nature, pollute less, consume differently, and be open to technological solutions old and new. Politics? Get involved. Asteroid? Sorry, can’t help you there.

Some problems can be fixed, others can’t be, but we can never stop searching for solutions. That may not make us happy, but at least, we can avoid being unhappy. Because this is important also: There are never just two options. Between unhappiness and happiness, there is the possibility of a neutral stance of acceptance of things as they are, and trying to make the best of it. You may not be happy, but you can choose not to be very unhappy at least.

#86: Nature Is Stronger than Us: The Pandemic, not the Lockdown, Is the Problem

It appears that if you feel tired, exhausted, depressed, and have been doing so for months already, you are not alone. The entire world is out of balance. Nothing is normal anymore, no matter how much we may want to pretend it is.

Some people are blaming the lockdown for this feeling. We can’t do what we would normally be doing, and it is because decisions have been made and continue to be made time and again to close down parts of normal life and have us postpone living like we used to.

But this kind of reasoning looks at things backwards. No matter how we may want to rationalize it away, the real problem is the continued development of the pandemic. Will the vaccines work? Will we be patient enough to wait till we have enough immunity that there will not be anymore the pressing danger posed by the virus? Can we afford to be patient? At which point does it become unsustainable to wait for a better tomorrow?

Yet any attempt to reason ourselves out of this will fail. Lockdowns are in place because of deaths and serious conditions, which are a result of infections and occur in a time-delayed fashion. If we let infection numbers rise today, the consequences will be only become visible much later. We know that, and this is why infection rates are a good predictor for the future. Once they go down, the chances for variants to arise goes down, because only a virus that’s still out there can mutate.

This pandemic plays on our biggest weaknesses; socially, psychologically, fiscally. We are not built for this. A lot of what is happening may be counter-intuitive, but it is still real.

Maybe it helps to remind ourselves that we are not alone in feeling the impact of this, even though it hits some people harder than others. Is this a test then for our capacity to empathize and sympathize? Does this moment in time provide an opportunity, though ill-gotten, to revisit what we consider? Time will tell, but I doubt it.

You may believe in the capacity for people to change, yet history will prove you wrong all too frequently. Not to sound too fatalistically, but our societies function the way they do for a reason. Things may change occasionally, but they’ll always coalesce into a pattern over time. We will eventually forget this pandemic as we’ve forgotten all the ones before us, and we will probably be just as unprepared for the next one that is surely going to follow.

Epidemics and pandemics have killed entire civilizations, even though we do not want to see that either. We want to believe that it is our own agency that can both save and doom us; but all too frequently, it is just nature itself.

Maybe Jurassic Park holds the lesson here that we will need to keep hearing: “Nature finds a way.” For better or worse. No matter how much we try to self-evolve our way out of this, nature cannot be tricked, cannot be overcome, cannot be avoided. We ourselves may not be patient, yet nature is, always.

#77: Animal Personalities

Maybe it’s because of Covid and working from home, but I am spending more time thinking about animals than I used to. When I moved to the US from Germany, I felt like I entered an alien planet. Almost everything was different, down to fauna and flora. Sure, Germany has oak trees too, but Oregon White Oaks (Quercus garryana) is not the same as the German Oak (Quercus robur), and Douglas Firs and Sequoias are simply in a class of their own compared to the little stick-size fir trees in Europe are allowed to grow into.

The birds struck me as most different, even though I was able to recognize some similarities. American Robins are clearly related to European Blackbirds, maniacally rummaging around in the leaves but rewarding the evening listener in spring with fantastic melodic cadenzas. Chickadees (black-capped and chestnut-backed) can compete with Great and Blue Tits, but sound different. Two species of Nuthatches (red- and white-breasted), of which the smaller red-breasted is fearless. Jays are loud always, and it seems the Steller’s Jays know they are prettier than the Scrub Jays. There seems to be a hierarchy.

The real character actors though are the grey squirrels, deer and raccoons. I think I am able to communicate with the deer very well, and they are smart. Much smarter than I (stupid human) would ever have thought. They seem to understand hand gestures, and can read my intentions. When I accidentally walk where they are headed too, I retreat and signal clearly that I am making way – and I see them respond by waiting rather than jumping away. I see different personalities, and if I occasionally throw an apple to them in the heat of summer (as thirst quenchers), they thank me, clearly.

Grey Squirrels are always a hoot, and I am trying to understand their nervous ticks, hand tremors, tail twitches, and sounds of annoyance. I have learned to mimic their sounds, and am able to get their attention – but I am clearly saying things wrongly, for I am getting looks of disapproval. The occasional raccoon will be happy if there is cat food left outdoors, and will make eye contact with me to make sure I will let them eat.

I have started to rethink matters a bit. These are people, but in different bodies. Am I anthropomorphizing animals? Well, I think most of the time, we are anthropomorphizing humans far too much. Instead, it would help to remind ourselves that everything around us is just as modern, just as advanced from their own genetic perspective as us lowly humans. Sure, a squirrel’s body can look funny, but I am not that sure my own is such a prize either. The squirrel is surely more athletic. And as to cats – I have yet been able to communicate with every cat. They know who they can talk to or not. We have an understanding.

This is not about politics, vegetarianism, or anything like that (I am currently not a vegetarian – I tried it, but it did not work out for me, and I would consider myself more of a flexitarian). This is just about our human tendency to diminish life other than our own, and the prevalent arrogant assumption that we are not like animals, and they are not like us.

When I can look into the eyes of one of those animal people around the house, I see eyes looking at me with an intelligence and with feelings that are very much relatable, as soon as you allow for the possibility. This is not my yard. I am sharing it with others, and have to make sure they are doing well. I cannot save the world, but I can make sure, as much as I can. to at least approach my fellow beings with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Surely, such a perspective is made much easier by a welcome under-abundance of mosquitos and ticks around this area here. And as to voles and the occasional rat, I am counting on the neighborhood cats and raccoons to develop strategies to help me out with the problems caused by those.

Nothing really can be helped by seeing us outside of nature – maybe that can be a learning lesson here for all of us in the pandemic. We need nature around us, and we need to develop community with it and its non-human peoples.