Where did toughness turn into weakness?
On my way to work this morning, rejoicing in the blessing of rain that has seldom come this winter (this took place in the winter of 2018), I peered up at the sky and saw two crows perched on a power line, bunkered down and waiting out the storm. Though grateful for the rain, I was happy to be in my car, dry and relatively warm. I imagined the crows out there all night amidst the cold and rain, and felt a special pinch of awe for these, and all animals, who live so much closer to the fluctuations and rhythms of nature.
Birds do make nests, and many other animals have their own dens and burrows, but they definitely don’t have heating and cooling systems, and when they do have to leave their shelters and ‘go to work’, they must eventually brave the elements. Whatever physiological adaptations they’ve evolved over the millennia their species has been in existence is the only protection from the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow, the drought. And not to diminish the ingenuity of animals’ physical adaptations - how mammals have adapted to return to the sea and stay warm in the freezing waters of many oceans is miraculous (just one of many examples). But when I think of the coyote, or the deer, facing weather that can fluctuate from 80 and sunny to 20 and snowy within a 24-hour period, I feel a profound sense of respect for these animals that in many ways are just flat out tougher than I’ll ever be.
I consider myself a Nature lover and an ‘outdoorsman’. There is a good chance you’ll find me outside on any given day, and I’ve done my fair share of braving the elements, whether through long-term adventures on bike or foot, or simply by living remotely in less ‘developed’ places (please ask me separately why I put the word developed within apostrophes). I keep the heat low in my home, if on at all, and prefer to put on a sweatshirt rather than pay an exorbitant utility bill or use natural resources I can’t fathom the impact of. I prefer to sleep with a window open. I enjoy being in the rain (for bits of time) and don’t mind getting dirty. Yet I am still a creature of comfort. I do like to live most of my life dry and warm (but not too hot), and so for the most part, when the elements are anything but that, I seal myself off in whatever container I happen to find myself in – home, car, workspace, café – and get to live in a perfectly controlled climate all year round. And so is the story for the majority of us fortunate enough to have work and shelter, which, apart from the homeless population, those struggling to pay their utility bills, and those few but growing masses trying to ‘get back to the land’, most of us are in the United States.
Crows come from a family of birds named Corvids, and Corvids are known to be quite intelligent. Their ability to adapt to new environments is quite impressive, but their range is still smaller than that of humans. One of Homo sapiens brilliant qualities was and continues to be the way we harnessed our mental powers to adapt to pretty much every environment on the Earth. Unlike animals however, we did not do this as much through physiological adaptations of the body which allowed us to be ‘tough’ enough to brave the elements (though there are some cool signs of this), we did this more-so through physiological adaptations of the brain which allowed us to manipulate our environment to create the comfort we needed. We made tools. We took the fur, blubber and skins of other animals to keep us warm. We made shelters out of rock, wood, and even ice. Humans spread from the equator north and south, and were able to live in most extremes – desert, heat, ice, rain, cold. This was our toughness. We were able to survive by adapting Nature to meet our needs, rather than adapting our bodies to live within Nature. And yet, even with all of those primitive adaptations, we were still mostly within Nature’s elements.
These days, I wouldn’t consider myself tough when it comes to how well I hold up in the elements, especially in comparison to the crow. I have not had to create my own heat and dryness. When did we move from a tough species, able to live in any environment, to a weak species, only able to exist in a small range of climate control?
It seems that toughness of the body has been replaced by ingenuity of the brain. And yet, I feel vulnerability in this. I feel separation in this.
Vulnerability because: “What if the power fails and the water supply runs out?”
Separation because: “How closely tied am I to the weather anymore? To the seasons? To the other animals? To the natural rhythms and cycles of life?”
And I wonder: How much of our lives do we spend protecting ourselves from the feeling of vulnerability? How much does this create a false sense of immortality? And how else does this ail our species? David Whyte puts it poetically and succinctly:
“To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances is a lovely illusionary privilege, and perhaps the prime, and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human, and especially of being youthfully human. But it is a privilege that must be surrendered by that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with a loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers, powers eventually, and most emphatically given up as we approach our last breath. The only choice we have as we mature, is how we inhabit our vulnerability. How we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate with our intimacy with disappearance.”
- David Whyte, On Being Podcast
And so I again return to this profound realization in my life right now: It appears that one of our central tasks as humans is to open up despite the pain that pushes us to close up; to be vulnerable and authentic at the risk of criticism and judgment; to come back to love amidst an onslaught of hate; to live fully in this life, knowing that at any moment, it could be over.
But how? How do we come back to ‘inhabit our vulnerability’?
I have some sense that the crows have something to teach us.