Artificial digs can’t replace purpose

Joyce Poole and Rick Warren have probably never met, but if they ever do, I bet they’ll have a lot to talk about.

You might be familiar with Rick Warren already, what with all of the Purpose-Driven products out there. It started with The Purpose-Driven Church, which did a lot to revolutionize the way evangelical ministries are structured and executed.. Several iterations later came The Purpose-Driven Life, which garnered national attention last March because of its involvement in the surrender of Fulton county homicidal maniac Brian Nichols.

And now it seems like there are new ones popping up every day. I mean, seriously – am I imagining things, or is Emeril on the Food Network trying to flip a Purpose-Driven omelet? I’m sure he’d have no trouble coming up with his own acronyms for stuff:

“B.A.M!! – it stands for Bridging Across Myself… you know, ‘cause that’s how you take it to the next level, is by… ahh… knowing yourself. Yeah. So anyway, put the skillet on low heat…”

Warren has gotten worldwide recognition for his series of books and videos related to living with purpose, and deservedly so. I like to mock the merchandizing phenomena that it created, but I believe wholeheartedly in the idea that if we’re not living according to purpose, we’re not really living. You know what I mean? Not really living, in the way that people mean when they say things like, well you haven’t really LIVED until you’ve gone paragliding, or taken a cross-country car trip, or started your own business, or auditioned for “Riverdance.”

[Quick note – I’m kidding about “Riverdance.” That’s an easy target for a jab. If there are any Michael Flatley fans reading this, forgive me. I’ll make it up to both of you. But as for my own little recommendation… if you haven’t seen a Broadway production of “Stomp” or “Bring Da Noise, Bring Da Funk,” well… you know the rest.]

The point is, there’s a difference between taking up space and oxygen, and actually living. And I would be willing to wager (if Vegas put odds on these kinds of events) that Joyce Poole would agree. She made headlines recently by testifying before a Chicago city council to say that zoo elephants have no educational value, essentially because the artificial habitats that zoos provide are so antithetical to the way of life that elephants are supposed to lead. Poole was testifying in part because of the public outcry related to how the elephants have been treated at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, where there have been three elephant fatalities in less than a year.

Poole has spent over 30 years studying elephants in Africa, including a stint as head of the Kenya Wildlife service, so you have to at least take her claims seriously. Her take is that children could learn more from watching a TV documentary about elephants than from two lonely elephants standing in a scrap of land that’s an umpteenth of the size it should be. Reading such a damning statement from such an expert, it leads one to wonder two related thoughts:

1.) If that’s so, then couldn’t you make the same claim about cats, dogs, hyenas, zebras and other animals in zoos?
2.) If that’s so, what does it say about us as people?

The first question is a complicated one, fraught with ethical nuances that I have neither the time nor qualification to completely explore. My basic answer, though, would be that, while it’s probably true that most zoos aren’t exactly good for the animals that inhabit them, the cumulative effect is probably a lot worse for elephants than other animals because of their enormous size. That is, the deficit of space and social interaction that elephants face while living in a zoo is a lot greater than that of other animals, since they are smaller, and by extension, might have more of their own to interact with and/or more space to inhabit.

But it’s the second question that really intrigues me.

What does it say about us as people that we would justify doing this to an elephant on the basis of our children’s (albeit educational) enjoyment?

Don’t get it twisted – I’m no PETA apologist. As a matter of fact, it’s not even the relative cruelty of captivity that sends my red-flags-a-flyin’ – because if it was, I would generally be opposed to the whole concept of zoos in the first place. (And I loves me some Lincoln Park Zoo, especially since it’s FREE. Chicagoans, take note.) No, what chaps my hide is the idea of purpose – or in this case, the lack thereof. That someone powerful could’ve thought to him or herself, you know, this isn’t exactly how elephants were made to live, but screw it – it makes my kids happy.

The sad truth is that many decisions get made this way, and often without even a cursory thought devoted to this idea of purpose. Many of us are faced with important choices, choices related to where we will live, where our kids will go to school, what kind of car we’ll drive, etc. If purpose is not a driving force in our decision-making, then we can end up in situations that, upon further inspection, prove themselves to be less than ideal.

It reminds me of Woody’s dilemma in Toy Story 2. (Come on, now. Don’t act like you ain’t seen it.) Woody, the main character, had a chance to become immortalized in a display case as part of a museum exhibit dedicated to his eponymous 50’s-era television show. Initially, he is thrilled by the idea, but the prospect of going without any direct kiddie playtime action overwhelms him. And Woody has an epiphany of sorts – he realizes that he is, essentially and primarily, a toy. And even the luxuries of meticulous detailing and climate-controlled display cases can’t compensate for his innate desire to be loved and played-with.

I imagine that sense of urgency and despair is what those elephants in the Lincoln Park Zoo live with every day. Or maybe what caged birds feel like. Like Brian Regan says in his stand-up routine about pets:

“Hey, thank you… I’ve been blessed with the gift of flight… appreciate the environment… I know how to fly, and I’m standing here on a stick!”

As I sit and think about the second question I posed, what it says about us as people that we would choose to inhabit an elephant in a manner so alien to its purpose… well, I guess it says that we’re selfish. But that’s not news, is it? We all know that humanity in its current condition has a nasty streak of selfishness running through it. But selfishness alone can’t account for this lack of purpose in our decision-making. No, I think the real reason why we would mistreat an elephant without regard to its purpose is because we, all too often, mistreat ourselves in the same ways.

And it’s not always immediately obvious. We may think that we’re doing the best thing for ourselves or our families. Think about the corporate officer who routinely works an 80-hour week so that her family can afford to vacation in Tahiti every year. She may despise her job, but she stays with it because she wants her kids to have the best of everything. But what if she wasn’t meant for that job? What if she only got her MBA because her parents pressured her to do so? What if the most fulfilling thing for her would be working as a probation officer or something with more direct contact with people? And what if instead of flying off to some tropical locale, her children might be better served if they, as a family, went camping instead?

I ask such questions not because I trumpet camping over vacationing in Tahiti, or working as a probation officer over being the CFO of a Fortune 500 company. I ask because over and over I see the wreckage that occurs when people chase after affluence instead of trying to figure out what they’re actually meant to pursue. No amount of money can make it go away, and no level of artificiality can substitute for an authentic solution. At the end of the proverbial day, living according to purpose is what can make the difference between marking time and actually living.

It’s true for elephants, it’s true for animated wooden dolls, and it’s true for you and me.

I’m G*Natural… thanks for mixin’ it up with me.

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