After weeks of frigid temps, falling snow and the general malaise of winter, it’s a lovely 55-degree day. Sunshine, gorgeous, blue skies smiling at me. So I brought my child out to the zoo, an idea shared by a goodly portion of the parents to Nashville’s younger citizens. The animals and exhibits, of course, pale in comparison to the giant jungle gym, which is the real draw of the place. Kids running hither and thither; babies cackling and laughing (and protesting and crying); teens looking on, bored, at their younger siblings. It’s a little slice of the human experience everywhere I look.
Seeing all these faces has got me wondering about what all goes on behind them. Who in this group is planning a crime? Who is falling in love? Who is living in a hollow of fear? And why do we work so hard to keep all these things from showing?
We each have a story, but more often than not a whole lot of that story is about image, about trying to show the face that we want to pretend is ours rather than the one that really is ours. It’s about looking respectable and conforming, which has little in common with actually being kind and good. One person’s respectable might look middle aged and modestly dressed while another’s conformity might be seen in tight bright clothes and spiky hair, but it’s still all about trying to fit in.
There is a great value in conforming. It can keep us from doing stupid and harmful things, it can help build community, it can be one factor in moving us toward the relationships, jobs and activities that we find fulfilling. It can also direct our energies toward image rather than substance, pull us away from the deep and the real toward the surface and the illusion. It’s a tool, that’s all, and it’s up to us as to how to use it.
And it all puts me in mind of Walt Whitman:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are
so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the
mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived
thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.