Ape and Angel

Homily delivered Sunday January 18 2004 at Beacon Unitarian Church


Most of us here assembled wish to live more ethical lives. We wish to make better choices, to open up possibilities in ourselves of compassion, love and renewal.

As we struggle each in our own way to achieve this, we also struggle with our very natures – those aspects of ourselves that react to real or perceived threats without thinking first. Inside all of us is a creature that does not wish to be tamed or transformed into usefulness, which does not wish to be governed by the needs of those weaker than ourselves.

The struggle between compassion and appetite – between angel and ape, so to speak – is a driving force behind religion, and the theme of my talk today. I wish to say at the outset that comparing ourselves to other animals and especially other primates is dangerous mental territory. For we are not our cousins, and the stark fact that we share an immense amount of genetic material with them may be true, but does not account for where human speech, tool use and adaptability came from. Nor does it explain how the divine crept into the story some thousands of years back. It’s been there all along, of course, but until an eye-blink ago, in geologic terms, nobody was telling the story.

So here’s a story from Jane Goodall, from many years ago. Once in Africa there was a male chimpanzee on the cusp of adulthood. His mother died of a respiratory ailment. This chimp became depressed. Perhaps depressed is the wrong word; but if he was whimpering and staring off into space, and not grooming himself, and losing weight, it doesn’t seem unscientific to say he was depressed.

In the same troupe of chimpanzees was another male, and he was in the same situation as his troupe-mate, in that his mother had also died at about the same time. But the difference was that the elder was not physically dependent on his mother. The younger one was only two, and his mother’s death under normal circumstances would have been his own death sentence, as he would have been driven off or bullied to death, or he would have become malnourished and died.

The older chimp, who had witnessed the illness and death of both mothers, adopted the younger one. It started out when the older chimp stood between the younger chimp and another chimp who was teasing and bullying and maltreating him. Within a matter of weeks every chimp in the troupe know that if you wanted to pick on the young one, you’d have the equivalent of a hulking great teenager on your case.

Over the course of time, they were accepted as being a family unit – foster brothers – and things settled back down again. Chimps have a long childhood. The younger one grew up learning how to build a nest and what was good to eat and how to avoid predators and what leaves to chew on to expel parasites.  He learned those things from his foster brother. In turn, his foster brother was, according to Jane Goodall, very patient and good humoured about his new role. It should come as no surprise that his depressed state vanished at much the same time as he became a foster brother.

Every chimp troupe has an alpha male. The alpha male cannot stay at the top of the heap without two things – his health and the assistance of a small coterie of mostly male supporters. When his health goes, the support of his friends wavers and there’s a power struggle.

The older brother challenged the alpha male. Supporting him all the way was his now fully grown little brother. The elder did what challengers do, which is spend a couple of weeks perfecting his charging displays, terrifying charges up and down screaming and throwing things – reminiscent of a former boss of mine, in many ways. He outfaced the alpha male and his potential rivals, took on the leadership role, and everything calmed back down again.

What is the moral of this story? Well, it isn’t clear-cut. Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you? I don’t think chimps are that sophisticated. When chimps learn a modified version of human language, an ape version of American Sign Language, one of the first things they learn is Gimme Tickle.  They may be willing to reciprocate, but they ask for it before they offer it.   As an aside, I have spent many years thinking about my own conversations with people, and in retrospect many of them seem to be a variant of Gimme Tickle.

Something that takes on the ‘feeling’ of moral behaviour was happening here. What was it? What caused this unusual action; a male chimp taking on a parenting role? If the older chimp had done nothing, the younger would almost certainly have died. Chimps are very good at remembering things that happened to them – there are lots of documented cases of chimps remembering behaviours and people going back twenty and thirty years – but they have lousy attention spans, even for great apes, and the future essentially has no meaning for them.

It appears to me that when he volunteered to be a foster brother, the older chimp was remembering something, remembering loneliness and sadness, and recognizing it in someone else. We can’t know what he was thinking, but it’s hard to interpret it another way. He wasn’t plotting to raise a henchman so he could be the boss; nothing we understand about chimps could lead us to believe that they could formulate or plan something that sophisticated.   Chimpanzees don’t understand time the way we do. Had there been a bigger gap between the death of the first mother and the death of the second, this story would likely not have happened.

The lesson for ME is that when we help other people, the desire to help is there because we are connected with own our past neediness. We remember what it was like, and wish to relieve suffering. Compassion is as much about being connected with your own feelings as it is about helping other people. I’ve met a lot of older people whom I consider to be role models of compassion. They are there for other people when they are needed, and are usually practical and quiet about the help they offer. But if you take the time to ask, they will tell you story after story about how they were needy or ill or broke or unemployed or desperately lonely, and somebody helped them. They remember what it was like, and compassion arises in them like an unstoppable force when they see a human need they can themselves take away with their presence or their help.

The connection of two people through need and compassion is not a planned activity.   It may take place in a social context full of nuance and reciprocity and a long shared history of mutual assistance, but it’s not something I plan, and I think most of us are like that.   I don’t get out of bed thinking, “I’m going to help somebody today.”  If I do help somebody over the course of the day, and I’m thinking of work in this case, it’s because they call me and ask me to do something or teach them something. Or sometimes they send out an email that’s so wrong headed that you realize that this poor guy, who’s only been with the company three weeks, needs a little coaching so he can fit in with this particular troupe a little better.

I remember MY first three weeks at the company. I cried every single day when I got home.   It was ghastly.  But that’s part of what drives me to help, remembering just how horrible it was, and despite that grisly beginning, I’m still there. The behaviour of the little brother is easy to understand. He transferred his affection and support to the one who offered it, thus doing the only thing he could to ensure his own survival. It didn’t hurt that he was little and cute.  You can see people do this, act helpless, hoping to invoke the “Oh isn’t she little and cute” response to get better results. I have to say that as a strategy, that works very well with some people, and really lousy with others, particularly my former spouse.

The roots of voluntarism – the helpful things we do when we feel ourselves to have excess energy or time or accumulated wealth – are in our natures. There are so many stories of human valour and sacrifice that they cannot be numbered. We are social; we have instincts that cause us to rush into flooding rivers and burning buildings to save other people’s children. In the balance are all the barbaric and destructive acts of human beings. These too are part of our nature.

I have many times heard people say, “I could never do that,” or “I can’t imagine how anyone could do that!” I am not one of those people. The darkness and violence of my own feelings and thoughts, linked to the study I have made of human destructiveness, lead me to believe that I am a lucky human, because I believe I have a choice about how I behave. I can imagine myself being violent and destructive with no difficulty. But I am not my thoughts.  I am not my imagination. I am the choices I make about what I think, and the strategies I devise to lift my darkness and show my light.

I do not know what struggles and grief you carry. You have made your choice to be here; you volunteered. We don’t have the same gifts and resources, but to publicly acknowledge your need for community, continuity and growth is a gift to everyone else in this room. And you can give that gift whether you’re tone deaf or feeling cranky or whether you would really rather be at home in bed or lying on a beach somewhere. If you’re feeling good today, then your presence is a twinkling eye in a cold grey world, a smile, a friendly hug and the uplifting feeling you get when you hear good news from a loved one’s mouth. That was not merely a smile you gave me this morning. When I stopped to listen to the compassion behind your smile, I could hear the rustle of an angel’s wing.

The angel in us is not an ethereal creature with snowy white pinions and a celestial countenance. The angel is in the choices that we make. We can choose to ignore our own gifts and hurt ourselves in the process, as well as impoverishing the world. Or we can choose to see ourselves as participants in creation, as imagining and building and repairing and inventing the language, the tools, the structures and the body of learning that it takes to make a better world.

The angel is the strength to meet evil with compassion, horror with beauty, hatred with softness. The angel is the humility to ask for help when we need it, for the ability to see our own needs as worthy of assistance, so that we may become strong enough to take up our challenges again and win. The angel is the sternness of duty, so that we do not abandon our best selves when the going gets rough. Many times in the wisdom literature of the world, seekers meet angels and have to look away. Sometimes when you meet your angel, you don’t want to see all the things that remain to be done. Above all the angel is a whisper of hope that refuses to abandon us, that makes us, as a species, get up again and again, no matter who says that it’s time to abandon our yearnings and forget about making things better.

The ape in us is our connection to the real. Our senses and our appetites are not our enemies, at least not in my opinion. There is a long religious tradition of fighting our own natures, which I think in the end is criminally destructive and stupid when it seeks to conquer those feelings without discernment and compassion. Hatred of the body is half a breath away from hatred of all creation.  Hatred of the body makes social justice impossible to achieve.

It seems more practical and humane to me to treat our senses and our appetites as our teachers. When we acknowledge our bond to all other creatures, a contract signed in the very cells of our bodies, then we can most fully experience the wholeness of who we are as human beings, and acknowledge with informed gratitude just how it is we differ from all other creatures as well. For as wonderful as chimpanzees are, they are helpless to save themselves from the relentless march of human need.

So are many humans, who cry out every day for liberation from tyranny, ignorance, slavery and hunger. In the midst of the human race learning just how destructive it can be, how powerful it is, how like unto the vengeful gods of old, we are sometimes in danger of losing the threads of our own narrative. Our story is a long and thrilling epic about the ape that smartened up.

You can be a hero in that story, adopting a little brother or teaching an adult to read, digging a latrine or liberating yourself from an addiction or putting up a church – all the things you can do to stretch the wings of your compassion…. or you can be a villain, by being destructive to yourself or the world we share, or by killing your own soul with the besetting sins of the modern world, apathy and despair. You can be an interesting combination of the hero and the villain – aren’t we all – but you can’t just hit the off button on the remote whenever you feel like it. It’s not TV. It’s a living story, and every single one of us is responsible for how it all turns out – at least for the parts we can see, and especially the parts we can imagine.

I think we are all apes and angels. I think we all have the potential to live more fully in the beautiful bodies we are born into, and to live more fully in the choices that we make about what to do with both our bodies and our thoughts. I think the choices that we make about what to do with our time and our gifts, is what makes us human, the imperfect but ever questing blend of ape and angel.

Leave a Reply