A friend used to tell a strange story about visiting the zoo. He walked among the enclosures enjoying a serene early spring day until he encountered the llamas. When my friend strolled around a corner, one of the llamas looked up from whatever llamas do and made immediate eye-contact. Then, as if startled by some imminent competition, the llama bolted eyes-wide toward him making a vague, in-its-throat protest. The fence prevented the llama from reaching him, but every available centimeter disappeared in its rush to reach the edge of its llama world. The llama stood there, snorting with exertion.
I can’t reproduce my friend’s very fine llama imitation here, but, aside from the drama, the story seems to have no point at all… other than establishing that llamas just don’t like my friend.
Maybe that’s point enough though. I sometimes wonder if humans have that same llama sense, unconscious, unexplainable feelings that come from other worlds.
All the back-channels of facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and mute scents crowd our unconscious so that, sometimes, we don’t like people and don’t know why. I distrust inexplicable feelings when I detect them and look for reasons to calm my formless antagonisms. Yet, more often, the process flows the opposite way, and my brain just rationalizes my feelings. That’s what humans do, they search for a cause before they really know the truth of what’s happened. We think something has been stolen when it’s misplaced. We assume thoughtless remarks were meant to injure us, or that the most minute gesture might mean hostility. We form conclusions on sketchy evidence.
Self-awareness—knowing what errors you fall into—seems the only hope. Talking about Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in class this week, the students ran through the dramatis personae assessing how well each character knew her or himself. Without fail, the greatest sympathy lay with the most self-aware. The least aware were laughable at best and, at worst, contemptible. Knowing or not knowing made some characters human and others monsters.
Yet, sometimes we seem about as self-aware as my friend’s llama. We’re slow to recognize errors, slower to acknowledge them, and slower still to remedy them. We take so much so personally. We live in an age when we are supposed to frown upon judging others too quickly, but we also shy away from judging—or even monitoring—ourselves. For all the signs of our civility and culture, the animal in us often wins.
Sometimes, in heated meetings, I awaken to the sound of my own strident voice, pressing home some self-righteous point, and I wonder who’s speaking. I momentarily see myself as others might see me, and I’m afraid.
The same theme of acrimony pervades contemporary politics. What if everyone living on this shrinking planet stops listening? What if we all give in to the hostility of the moment and let antipathy become the first, best, and last resort?
I sense something dark charging toward us.