Why I want to be a gibbon

I’d like to start by saying that I’m sorry that I’ve written so many editorials and no poetry lately. I’ve been spending some time consciously pondering what several concepts mean to me.  An important one is the idea of growing up.

When we are children we tend to idealize adults, the beginning of the path towards developing our “final” identity in a society with a million expectations.  Even into adulthood, there is a subconscious obsession with this concept of a linear development.  How many times do you hear the phrase, “when will you grow up?” or “stop being such a child” uttered to our peers who’s decisions or lifestyles we disagree with.  It is a vague concept, defined separately through the shade of society and through our own ambitions and conceptions, but one which we all must appreciate.

Two phrases are most commonly used in English: “becoming an adult” and “growing up”.  Becoming an adult represents the top down approach to me, marked by the idealization of what someone should be to fit into society as an independent human being.  It thus has quite the appeal to those lacking in imagination, with a preset path and the promise of a dignified existence.  It is generally characterized by being able to put food on your table, earn a wage, acting civilized and refrain from impulsiveness in day to day life, care for those who are your responsibility, and pay your taxes.  Generally important things, indeed, and for the most part the minimum required to take part equally in a functioning society.  However, if we’re to follow the top down approach alone, one can also generalize “living a life of low level nihilism and existential anxiety, generally sustained by impulsively creating periodic and meaningless goals leading to unfulfilling consumption and perpetuating the cycle of living in an alexithymic random walk, frequently broken briefly by intense desires (often sexual) which are quickly suppressed (heavily), and occasionally threatened by fundamentally even more nihilistic yet ultimately self defeating manic obsessive episodes “.  This may seem a little much, but really, imagine yourself with nothing but the above description of being an adult as your identity and ambition.

Growing up has a nicer semantic meaning.  It means improvement.  Up is the direction associated with better things, and the counterintuitive reality of it is that as we get higher the stars become closer and society fades further into the distance.  As we go up, entropy diminishes, and in reality we all have our own unique order that we aspire to.

How, though, do we define this order?  As I mentioned previously, the uncreative choose the simple path of being an adult, because it’s lauded to them as an achievement in its own right and not a bare minimum.  On the surface, it looks like the majority of us seem to be chasing achievement at specific things, arbitrary to varying degrees, as an end.  But, I would say that for everything every one of us aspires to, it started with a model.  It started with us looking at someone when we were a kid and being inspired by something we saw in them which was transcendent, or something that we saw as an adult which brought us to the moment of childlike awe again.  Children look at Michael Jordan’s unflinching perfection and dream of joining the NBA to be like him.  They see their dad fighting fires and they want to be brave like him.  They read the bible and they want to be just and loving and magical like Jesus.  They watch Hunger Games and they want to be focused with perfect aim like Katness.

Throughout my life,  I’ve wanted to be Steve Irwin, Michaelangelo (from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Reinhold Messner, Steven Newman, Meg’s dad from Wrinkle in Time, Ender Wiggin, Siddhartha Gautama, Illidan Stormrage, The Ellimist from Animorphs, Lara Croft, V from V for Vendetta, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Alan Watts, Fred Weasely, Dumbledore, Gandalf the Grey, Gandalf the White, Tom Bombadil, Michael Jordan, David Belle, Lynne Hill, Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, Yoda.  I don’t really know the connection and I don’t care to conjecture too much because I will never be any of them.  I don’t wield blades or staves nor command armies, nor can I do backflips.  I have only rudimentary command of the force and I have seen what happens to those who dream of followers.  In fact, I have a better, simpler model.

When I used to go to the zoo I mainly liked watching the gibbons.  They were just similar enough in their body layout to a person that I could easily imagine being one.  Everyday they spent swinging with such focused, seemingly nonchalant grace from branch to branch.  They were smaller than me but clearly stronger than an adult human, but no stronger than they had to be.  They clearly had an absolute focus on their next objective at each step of the movement, the next branch seeming to float into their hand more so than the opposite.  They had mastered their environment, there were no distractions, no fear, nothing but branches and the moments spent floating in between them.  Their enjoyment was one which could not be measured in relative terms as it was clearly the entirety of their being at that moment.

After a sincere attempt I’ve come to realize that I’m not anatomically a gibbon and thus the prospect of brachiating between trees is unlikely to pan out.  But now, after several months spent intensely realizing the necessity of focusing my life both on a macro scale and at a moment to moment level, it’s apparent that my natural weakness is the desire to be everything.

The desire to be a renaissance man is rooted in what is both the greatest human weakness and the greatest human strength compared to most animals, our ability to (sometimes perpetually) be physically in one place and mentally in another.  In a society with 1000 different paths, and a plethora of heroes, we are guaranteed freedom of choice in who we are, and the possibilities allow a wandering mind so infinitely many things to think about.  A renaissance man is rarely Leonard DaVinci, but instead so often a bored millennial who loves the weekends so dearly because they can try a new activity and assume a new identity, who are addicted to the internet because all knowledge is a new door, who daydream of traveling everywhere in the world while in lab because in the end everywhere is where they are stuck in the first place.

That’s not to say that skills don’t have synergistic value, and that new experiences and new places are not an innately fundamental part of being human.  It is to say that true success comes only when ones ambitions are like branches of a trees ascending into the sky.  If you fear an eagle while you are floating you will miss your next branch.  If you fear falling you will miss your next leap.  If you crave every fruit of the world you will move nowhere.  If you think, you blink.  If you blink, you fall, or at least your rhythm is distorted.  In the end, you must know your end goal past the clouds, and you must know your skill with every muscle in your body, but anything else just distracts.

With material prosperity sweeping over the world people are being sold a new lifestyle and new ambitions every minute.  You can now manage to fit into adult society and distract yourself endlessly at the same time.  To me, growing up is still about being one to transcend reality as much as it was in the past.  I don’t know yet exactly what I will do.  But I know that I want to do it like a gibbon.

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