I have been trying to live like a giraffe. Yes, I know this is a picture of a squirrel, and yes, a more appropriate animal for me would be a wild horse – and no, I haven’t actually been living outdoors, grazing thorn bushes on the savannah or nibbling grass or acorns. But the giraffe is the animal in question when Martha Beck describes, in her book Finding Your Way In A Wild New World, what wild animals do at times of trauma, shock or danger.
Unlike humans, animals (or wild ones, at any rate) are not burdened with anything other than the feelings and sensations of the present moment. They react quickly to danger with flight-or-fight responses, and once the danger is passed they slip back into a state of relaxation.
How very different things are for us – or for me, at any rate; I am still learning how events trigger responses for me that are not limited to the thing that’s happening, but rather go flying back into the past and worse still, skidding uncontrollably into the future. Before I know what’s going on my stomach is churning with the re-lived feelings of some previous stressful time and my mind fills with stories of how it’s all going to happen again and again like some horrible personal groundhog-day.
It doesn’t have to be like this, because, amazingly enough, we do have a choice about how we feel. This extraordinary fact took me a long, long time first to believe and then to begin to put into practice, but it makes life an extremely different experience in almost every imaginable way.
I watch animals whenever I can, squirrels, sheep, horses – and often feel a connection that is completely indescribable in words, and needs to be left that way. Now I have even more reason to remember this feeling of connection, and try whenever I find myself lurching into horror-story mode at times of stress, that all I need to do is to live like a giraffe.
Wendell Berry’s poem says all this and more far better than I could ever hope to do.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.