Remember, Taj, the oldest elephant in America, who died this week? (I hope you do, it was like 48 hours ago.) Remember that she liked to paint? Well, five-and-a-half years ago, her caretakers at Six Flags Marine World had her paint a picture for a woman named Lindsey who had pancreatic cancer. A month later, Lindsey died. She was 26.
Her husband kept the painting and his sibling put this video up on YouTube. You think of the guy looking at the painting, remembering that day at Six Flags. I think that’s Lindsey in the video. Or maybe it’s not. I don’t know. I’m a mess!
What is it about the animal-human interaction thing? It’s surely something about the reaching over boundaries. Communication and empathy in the face of the odds-against-it conditions. It’s about our essential aloneness in the world and endless struggle against that. Like, here we are, so alone and profoundly cut-off from everything else in the world. We’re all stuck inside our brains, unable to ever be sure what exactly anyone else is thinking—do they see the world as we do? Do they feel things that we feel? Are they not all robots programmed to trick me by some evil super-brain conducting a big Truman-Show deal from Skynet? I can never be totally sure. That last one’s unlikely, but the best we ever get is a guess. And it’s lonely. Even in a crowd of people. Even when we’re with the other people (if they are in fact, people) that we believe we know best.
So that guess becomes everything. Unless you believe in God, maybe. That, I could see, making people feel differently. But there’s the leap of faith, right? Same kind of thing, I’d think. Graham Greene seems to describe it like that: the best guess, the hope, is all we have. And the fact that we do sometimes have an experience that feels like connection. A conversation, and shared laugh, holding hands, or hand-parts, or whatever. Is he or she laughing for exactly the same reason that I am? Does he or she feel the same warmth on the skin? Probably not exactly,but you do at some point have to trust that other people, in their similarly cut-off bubbles, similarly trapped in their own brains, honestly empathize. Even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. Like: everybody likes 30 Rock. That makes me feel very lonely and like everybody else is a robot programmed with a different sense-of-humor chip than whatever biological joke-receptors I have in my brain. All these robots, programmed to laugh at this show that I find so mediocre and not funny, except for Alec Baldwin. Why were all these robots programmed that way? And nobody likes Freeway as much as I do. What is wrong with everybody?
So we manufacture communication. Based in large part on the shared acceptance of our lonely state as thinking beings, we make up ways to send each other messages. They have to come in to our boxes or our shells or whatever through our skin or our eyes or our ears. But these messages are the most beautiful things in the world. Take this data however you do, process it, and see if it all closely jibes with whatever your experience is. If there’s even something close to a match, it feels better than anything else. (Except maybe, like, heroin. But I think that’s what Royal Trux was talking about when they said, “If you want to stare hard at the inside of your head for the rest of your life, well, baby that’s just fine with me.” And I don’t really think they were wholly recommending it as a lifestyle choice.) Because anything, any evidence that goes against the always-there terror of being totally alone and isolated in the world, that’s the best thing. And the people we find this the most with, we make them our friends, and if we’re lucky, our husbands or wives. And then maybe we have kids, and that can really offer something profound in this regard but that something doesn’t have as much to do with why watching a video of a woman with cancer putting her hand on an elephant’s trunk is so moving.
When we can make that connection with people that are not so apparently like us, that makes the whole miracle of it seem even better. It’s more rewarding in that way. People from different cultures playing soccer or sharing a candy bar or something, even when they don’t speak the same language. There’s a million movies and phone commercials that tap into this, right? And this is why I can’t even think about the The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-time, when the autistic boy and his dad agree that touching the extended fingers of each other’s hands means “I love you,” because the autistic boy doesn’t like any more physical contact than that. What’s a more explicit depiction of making a connection through the thick walls of our lonely human-brain shells?
So with animals, if we see communication and empathy bridging what seems like such an impossible, interspecies gap—how could we ever know what an elephant is thinking or feeling?—but then, there is the familiar gleam in her eye, and what looks to be a smile on her face….. And it makes it all a little bit more okay. Even that Lindsey and Taj are both dead and Lindsey’s husband probably feels a whole different sort of sadness and also maybe some deep beauty or love when he looks at the painting an elephant made for his wife.