Have you ever dreamed you saw your reflection in a mirror? What would our imagined other self say that we cannot say for ourselves? The closest moment to contact with the universal nature of being alive might be a momentary gaze into a beloved pet’s eyes. Interactions with animals special to us can teach us much that our ordinary scholastic inquiries fail to glean. Cats, dogs, goldfish, godfinches, even snakes—they all can provide comfort and solace for a weary student’s study break. And maybe, just maybe, pets can provide scholastic spice to our essay ruminations and awaken us from pesky brain doldrums.
Jim Morrison of the Doors once sang “I found an island in your arms, a country in your eyes” and, normal human love aside, moments shared with companion animals fills this non-symbolic bill. Meanwhile, anthropologist Eduardo Kohn notes that, for one Amazonian tribe, a person who encounters a puma can become more than a human and engage their being into a new identity as a creative predator. “Runa who survive encounters with such predators are by definition, then, runa puma, or were-jaguars. One survives, then, by not being noticed as prey by a puma. But in the process one also becomes another kind of being, a puma. And this newfound status translates to other contexts and creates new possibilities.” (Kohn, 93). We transcend our identities by book learning and by life experiences; yet, to report back on what we’ve gained is often tricky—even when we know we’ve shared a special moment with another being.
To become effective students in the wilderness of education is to gaze back with all our being, not just our sequestered study selves. Perhaps somewhere beyond the realm of words or even images lies the truth of our existence as earthly beings. Thinkers throughout history have pondered meanings that evade expression in the ordinary manner. Intuition’s mystery is the stuff of legends and might provide new ways of thinking about our course material.
Passages to New Purpose
The environmental activist John Zerzan pondered animal eyes as “direct windows, in that openness and immediacy… if we could somehow see with those eyes, would it possibly allow us to really see ourselves?” (Zerzan, 103). Timeless truths might seem suspiciously (or pleasurably) to be more in the nature of math than poetry and yet isn’t there something special in making eye contact with an animal, wild or domesticated?
The classic novel A Cricket in Times Square describes literal harmonious possibilities when we allow nature to enter our realm; the headline cricket even seemed to sing along with human accompaniment. “When he heard Mama singing, he slowed his tempo so she could keep up without straining. When she was loud, he was too-and then softer when she got choked up with emotion and her voice dwindled. But always his chirping carried her along, keeping her on the right beat and the right tune. He was the perfect accompanist” (Selden, 104). Animals can communicate too, it seems, just not with such extensive phonetics as bipeds utilize.
Meanwhile, considering the mechanistic approach to human and animal life alike, one might note that the mystery of consciousness and language is at times one and the same. Where do our thoughts come from, anyway? Epiphanies and randomness can seem as inexplicable as the internal homeostasis of our bodily organs.
Sigmund Freud, part pariah and part philosopher, stated that all of life is a movement towards greater inertia and less liveliness. “If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reason-becomes inorganic once again-then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’ and, looking backwards, that ‘inanimate things existed before living ones’” (Freud, 70-71). In the mysteries of evolution “the first instinct came into being: the instinct to return to the inanimate state.”
Our cells, as much as they constantly regenerate themselves, do so after all because they are also always fading and dying. Expiring, if you will. And yet it’s the flicker of life that we see in a pet’s eyes that bonds us to them even though we know that our brains are different from theirs. Something deeper than we can comprehend in words takes place in those exchanged moments of caring. It’s as though our priorities realign to match the simplest of realities, like returning to a primordial interactive realm.
The nature of our beliefs about ourselves and our education is stilted in ideas about what matters most. Most of our academic life involves silent pondering and immersion in realms of the written word. Yet we all know how much can be written, so to speak, upon the face of a person or a pet. To really set our imaginations free, hopefully to write better assignment responses, implies that we bear in mind what George Orwell said about being too harnessed by our preconceptions. “Literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes…no pious platitudes to the effect that ‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’, can get over the fact that a bought mind is a spoiled mind” (Orwell, 174). To really write meaning into our lives involves not only words but feelings, not only coursework but those breaks in the action that remind us to pay attention to what matters most. Be they furry pets or even a pet interest, it behooves our development to seek learning in as many interactions as possible.