When I lived in Los Angeles, one of the inside jokes I had with a group of friends was about stupid wildebeests. No one thinks of wildebeests as particularly bright animals but they are like many herd animals in that they seek to overcome whatever limitations they have against predators in one-on-one combat by grouping together in masse so as to be capable of self-defense. It should be noted that as herd animals, it is essential for the well-being of a wildebeest for it to be a part of a larger group. An individual wildebeest that is separated from the herd is immensely foolish, subject to being preyed upon by virtually every predator around, from lions to leopards to hyenas. One might think that the herd behavior of wildebeests was totally irrelevant to human behavior, but that would be a mistaken thought. After all, human beings are herd animals of a sort, and our social and political lives bear out that we are beings of complicated social relationships of great importance for surviving and thriving . Therefore, even if we are more bright than a wildebeest, or so we hope, we can use the metaphor of a wildebeest to understand our own natures better and some of our own struggles insofar as they relate to the relationship between our well-being and success and our larger cohesion as part of a larger group.
Let us ask ourselves an obvious question: what is it that would lead a wildebeest to be separated from its herd? How does a wildebeest end up being alone in the first place? Wildebeest can be alone because they are injured or sick and abandoned by the herd because they cannot keep up. They can be alone because they incautiously wander far from the protection of others, being heedless to the dangers of the world around them. They can be alone because they rush off arrogantly beyond the rest of the herd, confident in their own strength. In all such cases, a solitary wildebeest is greatly vulnerable to the outside world, without sharp teeth or fangs and with a lot of vulnerable hide and tasty, if perhaps gamy, meat for predators to enjoy. Yet our feelings about a wildebeest differ depending on how they find themselves alone. Those of us who are humanitarian and generally compassionate people would feel bad about a wildebeest left behind because of sickness or weakness, and would wish such a wildebeest to be whole and well so as to be able to keep up the pace with the rest of its nomadic brethren. We might feel some degree of compassion to the heedless and careless, even if we understood that negligence was a major cause of a great deal of unnecessary suffering. Yet few people would feel sympathetic about a wildebeest that had deliberately left behind the protection of the herd to go it alone, because we know that wildebeests are prey animals and that the African savannahs are full of dangerous predators.
Yet the insight that we have towards wildebeests, and other obvious herd animals like sheep, are not always transferred to our own kind. Human beings, too, depend for a great deal of our happiness and success on the herd. Of course, we may not recognize the infrastructure needs we have that are satisfied as part of a herd. Our logistical requirements for feeding are immense, requiring transportation systems, food storage systems, and agricultural efforts that span near and fear, besides the distribution networks that bring our food to the markets where we purchase them. Every consumer good we use, from our electronics to our clothing to our vehicles, require similarly advanced networks of resource gathering, production, and transportation and storage of finished goods. Even the services we utilize, like buying insurance or reviewing books for free, require complicated systems of communication and distribution networks, and the infrastructure of phone and fax and data lines, and server space for book reviews, besides logistics companies (like the US Postal Service or UPS) to ship documents and books and insurance cards. Beyond this, we have intense social needs—we long for approval and acceptance, we wish to be part of families and socialize with friends. Our loneliness, and our longings for love and acceptance, are themselves proof that we were not meant to be isolated and alone, but part of a larger and cohesive whole.
How we are best able to fulfill our longings, and to live constructive and meaningful lives, depends a great deal on other people. These people do not exist merely to serve us; they have their own longings and their own quests and purposes to fulfill. Nor do we exist merely to serve them, for to deny our own dignity as beings created in the image of God is to do violence to our Creator. Yet somehow we must all serve each other, recognizing that we are integral parts of an immensely complicated whole. It is hard for us to find our place, and easy for us to forget our own obligations to help others, or to communicate openly enough our own needs, because we often fear that others will not be gracious with us or respond favorably to our requests and petitions. Often, our isolation does not spring from arrogance, but from fear, and yet it is all too easy for people who are afraid to put on a mask of arrogance, to look down on those aspects of life or those types of people who they simply cannot understand. That which we cannot understand we do not value or appreciate, and so we ourselves and our larger institutions and communities often suffer because we do not recognize the worth and the value that are brought to our lives by others. All too often we fight ourselves and divide our herds and flocks and forget that we make ourselves more vulnerable to attacks from without, and hurt our own abilities to form loving relationships within, because of the wounds that are caused from constant conflict and rivalry. We fight over positions in the herd and do not realize that we are all being hunted alike.
For we are all hunted by beings more powerful than ourselves. If we rely on our own strength, we cannot hope to cope with the circumstances of our lives, with the wounds of our lives, with the terrors of the night or the horrors our eyes have seen. Even the physical strength of our communities and societies cannot withstand the dangers of our lives without help from above. And yet because we cannot see the enemies that hunt us from the moment we draw breath, and long before, when we are but helpless babies in the womb, we do not appreciate the full reasons why it is of great importance not only that we be a part of a larger whole, but that we all contribute what we can to the well-being of others. This is so, whether our contribution is encouragement, a kind hug, a wise word, a listening ear, or any other comfort and love that can be provided by people of kind and tender hearts, able bodies, and bright minds, endowed with the Holy Spirit. Seeing as we have need of each other, and have use to each other, let us not be isolated and alone, where we are helpless prey against the violence of our present evil world. We may not desire to be wildebeests, and we may certainly wish this world were something other than what is was, but while we live here, let us at least be smart wildebeests.
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