Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Great Migration

“The Wildebeest migration” our guide tells us, “is one of the wonders of the world”. Which world, I find myself wondering. The animal kingdom? Surely, this mass of bovines is not greater than the powerful carnivores that hunt them. The ancient world? The beasts must have been migrating while the pyramids were built. Our world? My world?
Wildebeest make me uncomfortable. They’re ugly and stupid. They reproduce like mad and invented “herd mentality”. And, they’re remarkably similar to humans.
Being a Wildebeest is not about quality but quantity. The individual is all but meaningless. Hundreds of thousands of Wildebeest roam the African savannah and I realized that while some may be slightly smarter or faster or stronger than the rest, they’re all essentially the same. The rest don’t care how “special” that one is.
I’ve watched the wildebeest stampede. A lion appeared and they went running by the thousands. I know that most of the stampeders didn’t see the lion. A few who caught its scent went running and the rest followed, because clearly they were supposed to be afraid of something. It’s amazing how one tiny brain directs the mass.
I’ve also seen the carnage after a wildebeest stampede. I’ve seen African rivers damed by the corpses of wildebeests trampled during a crossing. The herd was, for no reason, in a hurry to cross the river. Individuals could care only for themselves. They couldn’t notice that under their hooves were not rocks but their brothers.
I heard about a person who got trampled. He was trampled by people rushing into WalMart on Black Friday. Getting a television for a good price was more important than his life. I wonder what they wrote on his tombstone. I wonder if the people at WalMart that Friday took responsibility. I wonder if they kept their television.
Once, I saw a pilot land a passenger jet, and then exit the plane with his copilot as soon as they were at the gate. I saw them help carry strollers, wheelchairs and bags up the stairs to the gate. I watched as they, in their white shirts and pilot hats, took trip after trip up and down the stairs. I watched as the men in the orange vests, who usually carry the bags, sat down and took a break.
My best friend has started her own charity. She has an annual charity bike ride that people choose to participate in. She’s had her face on television and her story in the newspaper. She’s raised tens of thousands of dollars. And, the part she cares about the most is the house she built for grandma Virginia.
In East of Eden, Steinbeck spends 600 pages telling the story of Cain and Able, coming to the conclusion that “we are Cain’s children” and as such, we must accept that we are flawed beings. Perhaps if we had descended from Able, no one would be trampled in the grocery store. But we belong to Cain. Shit happens and people cause most of it.
As we come our nature – our nature of weakness and filth and the murder of our brother - we also must acknowledge the miracle that is goodness. People choose to love, to help one another, to dedicate their lives to improving the world. They do it not because it’s easy, but because it’s right. We are neither bound to Cain nor doomed to be a wildebeest.

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