Expired · 5th October 2009
Denial is as old as human history. "It wasn't me that should be blamed for eating the forbidden fruit," said Adam. "It was the woman. She made me do it." And Eve, in defense of herself, replied, "It wasn't me. It was the serpent. It deceived me."
If the biblical story is not literally true, it is figuratively true. Even as mythology, it accurately captures the human inclination to avoid responsibility by ascribing blame somewhere else. Now, in our modern world, we can use biology to blame nature or genes, medicine to blame development or hormones, psychology to blame upbringing or trauma, sociology to blame culture or group pressure. Each blaming becomes an excuse that removes us from personal responsibility.
The alternative to personal responsibility is to surrender control to something or someone else, and to always assume the position of victim. Indeed, if the game of transferred responsibility were universally practiced, everyone would be engaged in the same process of avoidance, no one would be responsible for themselves but everyone would be responsible for everyone else. Guilt would always be borne by others and never personally owned. With Zen-like clarity, the simplest and bravest option is just to accept responsibility for one's own life and thereby avoid the complexities of blame.
Wild animals seem to function this way. Their lives seem to be lived with a kind of existential clarity that is free from transferred responsibility. They just do what they do and the great biological order unfolds as it does. The order and intention are intrinsic to the unfolding. We wouldn't expect a salmon to apologize for eating a herring, or a grizzly to apologize for eating a salmon. Nature proceeds with an uncomplicated simplicity that is morally and ethically freeing. Perhaps this is why we find nature so refreshing and renewing, so inspiring and cleansing. Being close to the web of this atavistic energy is liberating. Perhaps hunters are attracted to hunting and fishers to fishing because these activities allow them to reconnect with the original elemental order that we have complicated with all the "shoulds" and "musts" of human invention.
Of course, none of us can reside permanently in this original state of being. Hunters and fishers may enter it for a few hours or a few days. But, like all who yearn to escape into such elemental simplicity, they too must return to a society that measures and calculates, plans and judges with its self-reflecting consciousness. We cannot avoid the responsibility of choosing. Which raises the fascinating subject of dolphins and what they may have to teach us.
Kathy was the lead dolphin representing Flipper in the popular TV series, and Ric O'Barry was her trainer. O'Barry trained other dolphins, too, and he was largely responsible for creating both the performing dolphin programs in aquariums around the world and the "swim-with-dolphins" experiences that have become internationally popular tourist attractions. But the significance of all O'Barry's success was turned upside-down when Kathy committed suicide.
Dolphins, unlike humans and other mammals, do not possess an autonomic breathing function ‹ they must choose to breathe. And one day Kathy killed herself when she decided to stop breathing.
The philosophical and moral implications shook O'Barry to his core. He had assumed he was training simple social animals without any depth of existential complexity. Instead, he discovered, his students were sophisticated and sensitive beings who exercised conscious choices and free will. In a retrospective examination of his experience with Kathy and her kin, O'Barry came to realize that they may have been his intellectual equals ‹ and, perhaps, in other important ways, intellectually superior. He, like the rest of us, could only glimpse this intelligence because we could not understand their chatter, dialogue with them in sign language to as we do with primates, or otherwise bridge the communication gulf that separates us.
Indeed, dolphins seem to be those rare beings who have combined the attributes of being both wild and self-conscious. We now know that they hunt co operatively, that they share and play. With their trainers, they initiate learning games and display a sense of humour and mischievousness. We also know that in the wild they call and identify each other with distinctive clicks. In other words, they recognize each other as individuals, have individual names, think of themselves as separate from each other and, possibly, from the world that contains them.
Dolphins, it seems, live self-consciously in the world just as we do. They, too, experience joy and pleasure, stress and despair. And they share with us the same existential dilemma of choosing – even in such a crucial matter as life or death.
We may never know what dolphins think, or whether they have or even need the equivalent of our Adam and Eve story. Their lives are probably more elemental and innocent than ours, less burdened with the self-inflicted complications of our moral and ethical quandaries. They seem to live in a grace and clarity that is devoid of our denials and evasions, our delusions and angst. Perhaps they live as we imagine we once lived, before we made our fatal choice in the mythological Garden and ventured from a guiltless paradise into a world of confusion, ambiguity and dilemma. Maybe dolphins live as we dream of living in the remnant of our oldest remembering. And maybe, if we were just smart enough, their elegant simplicity could renew in us the art of being that we lost so long ago.