Pair of wolves. Credit: Tambako
Note: I have made this blog post an experiment in mixed media. For quotes from the book I refer to, I have included an audio option. What do you think?
If we can bring ourselves to watch and listen, the natural world can be a profound teacher.
I'd driven hundreds of miles to the Inyo National Forest to visit with ancient trees in hopes of reaching some inner insight and healing for an unsettled heart. But to be perfectly honest, my walk through the trees did not provide the transformative experience I was hoping for. Well, insight rarely comes from the place you expect it to.
A single light in the vast nighttime Inyo landscape shone from a dirt road hilltop, where I was snuggled into my hatchback with my headlamp, immersing in the lives of wolves in the book "Beyond Words" written by conservationist Carl Safina. This book entails explorations of animals' lives. Safina spends time with individuals who have spent day after day, year after year watching the same population of animals (elephants, wolves, whales, and more), and he shares the insights they have gathered over years of patient observation. When I was introduced to Twenty-one, a wild Yellowstone male wolf, I suddenly came into contact with values that had faded from sight over the course of a series of confusing life events. Twenty-one reminded me of the qualities I wanted to be looking for in others:
"Wolves are like this: the alpha male might be a major player in the kill, then go and sleep until everyone is full. 'The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf,' Rick says, 'is a quiet confidence, quiet self-assurance. You know what you want to do; you want what's best for the pack. You're very comfortable with that. You have a calming effect. Point is, alpha males are surprisingly nonaggressive, because they don't need to be'" (156, Safina).
Twenty-one lived a violent life, but he did not engage in violence that wasn't necessary to defend himself and his pack, and he never took it farther than he needed to:
"Twenty-one distinguished himself doubly. He never lost a fight. And he never killed any defeated opponent."
Twenty-one represented qualities of strength, power, and independence, but these were balanced by generosity, responsibility, playfulness, and compassion.
"One of Twenty-one's favorite things was to wrestle with little pups. 'And what he really loved to do,' Rick adds, 'was to pretend to lose. He just got a huge kick out of it.' Here was this great big male wolf. And he'd let some little wolf jump on him and bite his fur. 'He'd just fall on his back with his paws in the air,' Rick half-mimes. 'And the triumphant-looking little one would be standing over him with his tail wagging. The ability to pretend,' Rick adds, 'shows that you understand how your actions are perceived by others. It indicates high intelligence. I'm sure the pups knew what was going on, but it was a way for them to learn how it feels to conquer something much bigger than you. And that kind of confidence is what wolves need every day of their hunting lives.'"
Feeling my admiration for Twenty-one grow with every turn of the page, I understood that this wolf, this wild animal, was showing me the important fundamental traits to look for in a mate. As a single woman in my mid-twenties, these passages felt empowering; my past relationships had failed and I wasn't looking to have many more failures before committing for life. Having a clearer sense of the qualities to look out for (in humans!) has given me greater confidence. To my delight, as I continued reading, the wolves continued teaching.
Cinderella was a female a wolf who lived under the abusive reign of her sister. One day, Cinderella organized an uprising against their leader, and in turn, she became the matriarch of her pack. After a lifetime of being abused, she became a skillful and kind alpha wolf:
"'Cinderella was the finest kind of alpha female,' Rick Mcintyre says. 'Cooperative, returning favors by sharing with the other adult females, inviting her sisters to bring her pups together with her own while also raising her vanquished sister's pups--. She set a policy of acceptance and cohesion that allowed the Druids to swell into the largest wolf pack ever recorded.' She was,' Rick says, 'perfect for helping everyone get along really well'" (Safina, 159).
Like Twenty-one, Cinderella had no taste for needless violence. She selectively engaged violence to support the total pack in safety and connection. This is no small feat. She had to have the trust of her pack to not only take down the leader, but to also take her place. She had to take a deadly risk to create a better world for herself and the pack. Cinderella's courage, compassion, generosity, and commitment to her pack make her so easy to admire. But it's particularly helpful to us as humans that she is not human. It's helpful to contemplate female leadership and motherhood outside their heavily stereotyped and judgment-burdened human contexts. The way Cinderella skillfully played the role of leader and mother was inspiring, and refreshingly easy to accept and respect. The clear distinctions between us and them do not have to be alienating. In fact, thanks to our differences, I discovered connection with the wolves I hadn't even met.
A careful look at value-formation
Humans, like wolves, are social creatures. We look to the dominant individuals in our families and societies to form our values. But, as with wolves, sometimes human leaders are not good role models. Today, humans face the challenge of being surrounded by thousands of voices of "authority," ranging from within our friend and family groups to our world leaders. These "leaders" make value claims through their actions and words, and often we internalize this subconsciously. Eager to please the alphas around us, we may modify our behaviors, or in an effort to be accepted in the "pack," we might automatically identify with the values professed by the "alpha." I, and most of us, have personally been in a variety of social circles, in a variety of positions of influence, with diverse values, some of which included:
Not being "heady"
Having a strong work ethic
Being laid back
Living with passion
Being a daredevil
Caring about money
Not caring about money
And we may find that we and others around us end up spending a lot of time and energy trying to please the people who happen to be around us so that we feel accepted. But what if in our desire to be socially embraced we turn on our true values? And how would we feel if our "leader" suddenly changed their mind and voiced a new opinion that matched how we had actually felt all along but pretended otherwise? Which of these are our true values, and which do we just try to fulfill to achieve the approval of others?
If we don't define our own values, we get sucked in to others' value systems and deny the legitimacy of our own experience and knowledge. We act as though we have not seen and learned enough in life to set a standard for how we want to live, and waste time trying to impress people that we don't actually look up to but whose praise we seek. Then we end up with a fractured, confused, and insincere society. Do you want to live in someone else's world? What about your own? What if everyone were taking their cues from you? What influence would you choose to make?
I was always able to see value in just about all the lifestyles I came across, and I could also see drawbacks, consequences, and trade-offs. Which meant: I often felt a bit confused. Periodically, I would have powerful personal experiences that became important reference points for what I think is important. But still, we are not immune to social influence.
Perhaps this is why it helps to step outside human circles to study values. Within the passages about the wolves I was finding some welcome breathing room from values attached to human agendas; I was able to explore values for what they stand for rather than for who they were connected to. To observe values of loyalty and love and vigor and kindness woven across trails and woods and hunting excursions and playtime and rest was refreshing. Between the shimmers of Twenty-one's silver fur, the flashes of his teeth, and his playful spirit, I discovered the patience, strength, and self-assuredness I was looking for in a human partner. I came to a better understanding that I didn't need to compromise, and I didn't need to feel inadequate when someone who didn't even portray these values rejected me. Through the story arc of Cinderella's rise to compassionate leadership, I found a beautiful example of the integration of strength and nurturing that I strive to embody.
Can humans consider these wolves a reference point for our value systems? Is it so unreasonable? Any time I am unsure about a decision, I can think to these wolves, whose actions speak for themselves. What would the admirable alpha female wolf do in this challenging situation? Because I would love to be like her. What would the admirable alpha male wolf do? Because when the alpha male human in my current social circle is doing the opposite, I don't have to fall for it, and maybe I can even find the courage to stand up to him if I can think of Twenty-one's dignified and inclusive ways, and Cinderella's act of bravery that was committed in the name of a safer, happier, more inclusive and loving group.
The point I am trying to make is not to arrive at a fixed set of values that are never influenced by others, but rather to clarify the core of our value system and through experience, develop intellectual and emotional reasoning for that foundation of ethics that do not have to do with another person's proclaimed authority. Having a strong and clear sense of what is fundamentally important to us in the big picture of our world and lives helps us to navigated the details and to understand when it makes sense to deviate, experiment, revise, and update our values based on new experiences. This approach helps us to neither be rigid nor overly impressionable. We are shapers, but we are also shaped, just like a river being directed by the land at the very same moment it makes its impression.
Within the wolves' stories, devoid of the snags of confusing and contradictory human opinions and agendas, the values are so clear. I recognize that these wolves, like us, are complicated. We are not sensitive to them enough to recognize all their nuanced inner conflicts and perspectives. But what we can see in them is something we can learn from. Their lives carry messages that give us pause, help us reflect honestly upon ourselves, and equip us with the courage to step forward with confidence and make our impression on the world through our actions.
I drove hundreds of miles to learn from ancient trees only to discover the wisdom of wolves that roamed the pages of the book that was with me the entire drive. And of course...what we need is already with us, and in our heart of hearts, we already know what we really care about.