The Reflecting Self
Would We Lose Our Souls in a World Without Animals?
By Gary Kowalkski
One of the great privileges of being a minister comes when I'm asked to preside at the christening of a newborn baby. The child may sleep through the ceremony, but that doesn't lessen the wonderment.
While I have welcomed hundreds of infants into the world in this way, I always feel that I am in the presence of something extraordinary.
Millions of children are born every day, but each is unique. Out of its mother's body, an unprecedented individual emerges. What forces have conspired to create such a marvel? Knowing the facts of reproduction and genetics does little to dampen the amazement. A brand new person has sprung into existence, a soul unlike any other.
How is such a thing possible? Some religions teach that there is a distinct moment when the child is "ensouled," receiving the crucial gift that endows it with humanity. The same religions teach that at some juncture in our evolutionary past, the human race was "ensouled."
At this instant, our primate forbearers branched off from the larger family of life and became spiritual beings, unlike lesser forms of life.
But in truth, the soul does not descend from on high. There is no magic moment when it makes an entrance. Rather, the soul grows slowly.
It begins tentatively, a gradual awakening as earth rouses to a dim apprehension of itself. From undifferentiated tissue, a nervous system develops, and a mind begins to form.
Wishes and desires distinct from those of the womb that conceived it take shape within the growing child.
The process continues as from our earliest memories—from how our parents held us when we were tired, from the games we shared, and from the dawning consciousness of selfhood and freedom—we gain and increasing awareness of ourselves, of the life around us and the life within.
My own children remind me that becoming human is a continuous unfolding. One evening my son was playing with his toys in the tub when suddenly something caught his eye.
Reflected in the chrome fixture encircling the faucet was his own image. With a happy smile of recognition, he called out his name, "Noah."
At some stage in their development, children acquire a sense of self. At six months, babies are likely to treat their mirror images as playmates. Slightly older youngsters being to grasp the reflective properties of a shiny surface; if another person appears in the looking glass, the child turns away from, not toward, the mirror to see who has entered the room.
At about two years of age self-recognition takes place. If a mother surreptitiously puts a dot of rouge on the tip of her toddler's nose, and the child is then placed before a mirror, the child's hand reaches out not to the mirror but to her own face to investigate the strange crimson mark.
The child's development retraces evolutionary history in this case. Fish and birds regard a mirrored image as another member of their own species and may curiously investigate the animal--or even attack if they perceive the image as an intruder.
Monkeys, on the other hand, appear to understand that burnished surfaces reflect, and they use mirrors to look at objects indirectly. Besides human beings, only the Great Apes, along with elephants and dolphins, have passed the self-recognition test.
A chimp whose face has been marked with red dye, like a human child, will direct its curiosity not to the image in the mirror but to its own features. Indeed, chimpanzees will spend hours in front of the mirror, brushing their teeth, making faces, and contemplating their own appearance.
When chimps have been cross-fostered--reared within a human family and treated like sons or daughters--look into the mirror, what do they see?
Asked to sort a stack of photographs into two piles, human and animals, such an ape will invariably put his own snapshot into the human category. Why not? A chimpanzee's self-concept is shaped by his surroundings.
Growing up in a suburb rather than a zoo, cross-fostered chimps see themselves not as wild animals but rather as individuals who happen to enjoy bananas (a taste is probably innate) but also like a bowl of Cheerios to go with them (appetites that are surely acquired). The soul—the "I" that each of us calls "me"—emerges from these biological and social origins.
We gain our awareness of ourselves by seeing our own images reflected in the world around us, and there are many kinds of mirrors. A boy learns what it is to be masculine by observing his father, and from her mother a girl learns to be what we think of as feminine.
We define "self" in relation to "other," and the mirror reflects two ways. So we create our families and our families create us. We shape our environment and the environment shapes us. Social interactions are mirrors, culture is a mirror, and so is the natural world.
Animals are among the mirrors we use to define ourselves, from Aristotle's "featherless biped" to Desmond Morris' "naked ape." Over the centuries, Homo sapiens have been variously classified as the "linguistic animal," the "tool using animal," the "political animal."
None of these traits are limited to people, though. Other species also use tools and also employ symbolic communication. What seems certain is that human beings constantly compare themselves to other creatures.
Like a person constantly glancing in a mirror, we seem to have some doubts about our own self-image. Our boasts of superiority suggest not any real self-confidence, but rather a nagging insecurity.
As the youngest members in life's family (and in some ways the least mature), we need animals to tell how who we are, and perhaps this is why children are so fascinated with other living creatures.
This is evident in my own kids, who seem to understand with innocent wisdom that an inchworm is good grounds for astonishment and a chipmunk a prodigy of nature.
Far more than adults, young children dream of animals, and studies show that given a choice of picture books, kids will invariably select those that feature illustrations of other living beings.
What will it mean for the human race if children like Noah come of age in a world bereft of animals? Their growing years will be less vibrant. Their inborn potential for awe will go uncultivated.
As more species slip into the long night of extinction, our humanity will be diminished. We will become increasingly confused about who we are, and distortions of the self (egos that are chronically over-inflated or under-inflated, having no reference point in nature) will become more common. In spite of our material plenty, our inner world will be impoverished.
With the disappearance of animals, we will become like children who grow up in a jungle of asphalt, or like orphans who have no family and only themselves to care for.
We will have only our own fantastic creations—billboards, newspapers and computer displays—in which to see our own image represented. Without animals, the bright, reflective qualities of the world will become inanimate and dull.
What do we profit if we gain the whole world and lose our own souls? The human race may survive with the chimpanzees and other wild creatures who share the planet.
But we will have attenuated the conditions necessary for our own ensoulment. We will have traded a nurturing family for a dys-spirited one. The ecology of mind will not be as luxuriant. And when we look into the mirror, there will be less and less to love.
* Based on the book The Souls of Animals. Copyright © 1999, 1991 by Gary A. Kowalski. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
Gary Kowalski is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Burlington, VT. He holds degrees from Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School. A native of Oklahoma, he has served churches in Memphis, Tennessee, and Seattle, Washington, before moving to Burlington. He is the author of several books, including Goodbye Friend: Healing Wisdom For Anyone Who Has Ever Lost A Pet, also published by New World Library.
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