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Humanist Essay for March 2013
"Reality Check"
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I've been writing a lot about the extreme amount of violence in our culture. There are 60-second movie trailers on TV that make me feel like I've been through a war, they are so full of noisy, bloody mayhem. So we had a bit of a reality check the other night when we tuned into a nature documentary about how animals survive a long northern winter. This particular study involved bison and wolves. Brilliant photography brought us every aspect of their movements and activities. Much of it was shot from above as these animals moved across vast landscapes. We hadn't been watching long when the scene got very tense. A herd of bison was traveling in a tight knot with their young in the center of it, and a pack of wolves was literally dogging their heels - charging into them, nipping, taking great chances amid the hoofs of those many-times-larger beasts with horns.

We had seen the wolf pups frolicking earlier. As with the buffalo and their young, the familial scene immediately evoked empathy, a sense of relatedness to that protective feeling of the adult for the young and delight in the adorable play of the little ones. Now, as the wolves flat out attacked the bison with strategic, single-minded prowess, it became ever more clear that they would not give up until they had taken down the young prey. They had their own brood to feed. As if they too understood the universality of parental feeling, they charged the herd with ferocity and managed to split it. The knot of bison, made smaller by two, hurried ahead to save what they could. A single adult bison was left to fend off a pack of five large wolves. It fought valiantly, but when it became clear that the baby bison would not get away, we quickly changed the channel - we who can sit through apocalyptic destruction of whole cities with a yawn.

Nature is cruel. Life is prolific and for the most part short-lived. Lots of life and lots of death. And you can't pretend that the animals don't feel this, that we're the only ones. The bison will miss its babe. The wolf will run itself near to death to feed its pup. Science has only begun to explore the self- and social awareness of other species and how it may relate to that of humans. Conversely, we know humans also have a survival instinct that can drive one to kill in order to live. This mechanism demands a distinguishing of "us" from "them" that in humans is mostly conceptual. A curious species surveilling us from above would not see anything so different in our warring armies as wolves and bison. And peering into our domiciles, they may find us well stocked and nowhere near the dire straits of a wolf in winter. And yet we still fight each other.

The wolf and the bison got me thinking about the old concept of Zion that I learned in Sunday School. "Where the lamb will lie down with the lion." It was not a conception of any place on this earth, to be sure. To attain Zion we literally have to go to another plane of existence where the laws of nature do not demand that the lion eat the lamb or perish. To date, prayers and dutiful observance of ritual have not succeeded in taking us there. Even if all humans obeyed the same moral/civil law and we miraculously achieved peace among ourselves, the lion and the wolf would still have to eat - and so would we.

Nontheists like to point to all of the violence, injustice and sorrow in the world as evidence that there is no King of Peace running the show here. Nature is all there is. But nature, if not consciously cruel, is destructive, insatiable, relentless. Religions have visualized more perfect worlds in which we are freed from nature. Since humanists don't buy that, we are challenged to find other responses to the harshness of nature and the pain of existence. My answer is Art. What's yours?

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Copyright © 2013 Zelda Gatuskin

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