So I know some of you just read that twice. Sounds weird, doesn't it? But it's true! I saw it on a nature program this week.
Apparently, there are a lot of fur seals off the coast of southern Africa. And there are also hyenas in southern Africa. So the hyenas prey on the fur seals on a regular basis.
I know a fair bit about the animal kingdom, but this was something that never occurred to me. And it just felt wrong. This is how it goes in my head:
Right? I mean putting the two together is just wrong, wrong, wrong.
But if you think about it, it makes sense. Go far enough south, you'll end up with cooler weather, and if you walk across the land, you will eventually hit the sea.
Normally I don't think of myself as someone who likes to put things in boxes, but this made me wonder. How often do I see the world as neatly compartmentalized for my convenience? How often do I ignore the way that all life flows in and out of each other?
Like north turning into south turning into north again. Like hyenas eating seals.
It's funny when it happens with animals. But how often do I do it with people? How often do I put people in neatly labeled files? "Person-Who-Voted-For-Someone-I-Don't-Like" "Grumpy-Jerk-At-Work" "Stupid-Driver-Who-Cut-Me-Off".
And the list of labels is endless. Ignorant, dumb, inconsiderate, lazy, hateful, intolerant, permissive, whining, uncaring, bad work ethic, stuck-up... All the ways we describe people "not like us".
How often do I do it? More than I like to admit, that's for sure.
Is it possible we are all closer than we like to think? An old man who lost his home as a child and spent the rest of his life in a Palestinian refugee camp and an Israeli child whose parents died in a bombing, how close are they on a map of the human heart?
(I realize that's a politically charged example. But I'm not talking about politics, I'm talking about people and individual human experience.)
We don't have to agree with everything everyone does. (Nor should we.) And people are capable of all manner of dumb, mean and downright evil acts. But I do think we divide the world into us and them at our peril. If we do that, we deny "them" the right to feel grief, joy and confusion as great as our own. And we forget that we are not immune to darkness.
It's also bad for us as writers. As writers we must resist the urge to box up life neatly. Writers and artists are people who follow the north-south line, who go far enough to see how close people really are.
And then we go out and tell others about it.