In his acclaimed and successful book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky claims that when we worry or experience stress, our bodies turn on the same physiological response that animals do. What’s different between us human animals and other animals is we do not resolve conflict in the same way animals do — fighting or fleeing. Instead, we brew and stew, replaying in our minds conversations or events we were dissatisfied with. Why this outcome and not that outcome, who is to blame…and on and on it goes.
It can take a long time to “let it go,” and these events often become additional fuel for our resentment and anger. Over time, those emotions have plenty of negative effects on ourselves and our relationships. Wild animals don’t die of stress-related illness. We humans, though, can certainly get very sick from stress.
Up close and personal
At midnight in January 2016 at the Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, I introduced myself to three strangers and two tour guides. One guide was local, the other the tour organizer from Wisconsin.
I was so removed from California. Oh, they had parking lots, Toyotas and people dressed in Western clothing. Our local tour guide even had on a 49ers t-shirt, though he had no idea who they were. Yet, here I was in Africa! AFRICA! I had traveled halfway around the world. I wondered what I would encounter, what would I see, and how would I get along with these strangers with whom I would spend 18 hours a day for three weeks.
Getting here had been a journey in and of itself. I had seen the notice about GenSafaris.com in an animal communication newsletter. “Small, intimate trips with an experienced tour organizer.” I was not thinking of taking a trip and I certainly was not thinking of East Africa, let alone Tanzania. I had to look it up on the map to see where it was located.
Something kept me moving forward — communicating with the tour organizer, booking tickets, getting the visa and beginning to have email contact with my fellow travelers. It was as if my rational mind let this curiosity and desire for a deep, life-changing experience lead it. I could not explain it, but I could feel that I needed something to shake me out of my current perspective on life. I was along for this ride, somewhat in wonder of what I was doing. It was as if I could not stop moving toward some type of spiritual awakening that I suspected awaited me.
At the end of the first week, we moved into a conservation park that included lots of zebras. As I watched them, I saw their herd behavior. They were close enough that I wanted to reach out and pet them. I watched how they moved together as a group, depending on each other for safety and protection. Their basic protection from prey is their stripes. When being chased, they move and dart together in a manner that makes it almost impossible for a lion to focus on one individual animal. They rest on each other, keeping an eye out in opposite directions.
Further on, we found zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and gazelle all “living” together. I learned that they do not compete for food. Instead, they offer each other unique ways of protection. When coming upon a river, the zebra will let the wildebeest drink or enter the water first. If they are not eaten by crocodile, the zebra will enter the water. If the zebra sees the giraffe run, they will begin to run, “trusting” the giraffe sees something of danger. Lions are the main land predator, and this community has developed a relational way that uses the strengths of each other while also taking care of their own survival.
As I watched this and other blends and serendipitous relations among the animals, I began to think about us humans and was reminded of the book by Robert Sapolsky. Seeing these animals living peacefully, only acting when they became prey, seemed like a rather ingenious way to live. What if I could be relaxed and not fretting about the past or the future?
I had grown up with a predominate mood of resentment. It was like a low-grade fever. I would find myself feeling betrayed, done wrong to or disappointed. I thought this was how life was. It colored my life and I was oblivious to it. I have made great progress with this “low grade fever.”
I thought about these animals and what might it be like to be relaxed with the present moments and events. If I am driving, that must be what I am to be doing now. If I have a difficult conversation ahead, that is what life is bringing me now, so I might as well engage and not run away. Like a zebra, if she is eating grass, she eats grass and doesn’t act until prey comes along.
I am not saying don’t plan or don’t make agreements with others. We need to do that too; it is an integral part of daily living. What I am asking is, what if we all enjoyed what we are doing moment to moment and stopped being OVERLY concerned about the past or the future?
What if we were more like the zebra — zebra-ing along, enjoying life until that moment when a different action was required?
I welcome your thoughts and perspectives.
Photos by Merle McKinley