Sunday, December 11, 2011

We Grok Goodall

The Oxford English Dictionary defines grok as "to understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with" and "to empathise or communicate sympathetically (with); also, to experience enjoyment." (Author Robert A. Heinlein coined the term in his best-selling 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land. )

In A Reason for Hope Jane Goodall describes her early enchantment with nature and the interwining of science and spirit that has driven her life work. Seeking a disciple with an unprejudiced eye, Louis Leakey chose Jane because of her lack of credentials, driving curiosity, and chutzpah that had brought her from England to Africa hoping to "work with animals." Jane's approach to the task he set for her was an anomaly in the world of ethology fieldwork at that time. Instead of assigning numbers to her chimpanzee subjects she gave them names that suited their personalities and behaviors. She used her (dare I say womanly?) powers of empathy as a tool to unravel the mysteries of primate social psychology. In retrospect, her approach seems supremely logical--the relational world of human primates is remarkably similar to that of our chimp cousins (our DNA varies only a few percentage points). But at the time of her first foray into research, Goodall was a quiet maverick, considered a laughable amateur by the scientific hierarchy. As her book makes clear, Jane "groks" nature in all its forms, including the experience of being human. Retired from field work, she now tirelessly campaigns for mistreated chimpanzees worldwide who suffer as discarded or neglected zoo and research animals. Her Roots and Shoots program promotes appreciation for nature among children. Everywhere she goes, audiences are electrified by her insight, kindness, and sense of humor.
Jane's intimate connection with nature and concern for our singular planet resonated in different ways with our members, but certainly produced a harmonious chord. Jane's Reason for Hope is the evidence she sees that our "better angels" exist within and will eventually lead us to live in harmony with creation. If Jane Goodall is any indication of human potential, there is indeed Reason for Hope. May we all be inspired by her example.

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