August 14, 2004

I wish I was a polar bear!

When I was small and would go to the zoo, I would pretend to be one of the animals I saw: a hippopotamus, a panther, a tapir (tapir?). Usually, I would go home pretending to be a bear. For some reason I always really liked the bears.

Today at the zoo, we were watching the polar bear, and one of the little kids reminded me of how things are when she shouted "I wish I was a polar bear!" Tonight in the bathtub she'll probably pretend she's a polar bear swimming in Arctic waters, looking for food. (Seals? Just "food.") Kids can empathize with animals through their imagination; they can imagine what it must be like to be a polar bear, with big furry paws and at home in the water. Most adults have lost this ability, or else they don't try it any longer. Wouldn't want to act like a little kid, I guess. Maybe that's one reason why kids seem to have a better time at the zoo than most adults.

Sometimes it seems that adults would be happier if they could remember what it was like to be a kid. If they could use their imaginations again. They wouldn't have to take the great leap all at once--instead of pretending to be a bear or a tiger, these adults could work the rust out of their imaginative abilities with small, careful baby-steps. First imagine that you're still you, but that you work at a completely different job. You're not a lawyer, you're a zookeeper. Your job is to feed the penguins their yummy fish snacks. You get to wear big rubber gloves, carry a shiny metal bucket full of fish, and go inside the penguin cage and feed the penguins while all the people watched. Wouldn't that be fun? Later on, as your imagination started to catch fire, you could pretend to be other people: the mayor, a ship's captain, a Bangladeshi farmer. Later, if you got really good at it, you too could imagine what it must be like to be a polar bear.

If adults could remember to use their imaginations, would anything be different? Would they be so quick to overlook the destructive consequences of some of what they do every day? Maybe it wouldn't go that far; after all, it's usually hard to know which of our everyday adult actions ultimately harms other people (or bears, or birds). Maybe the only thing that would change is that adults would start to enjoy the zoo again, like they used to when they were kids. Even that would be a change for the better.

Posted by Carey at August 14, 2004 07:48 PM
Comments

What a wonderful post! And good question -- if adults could remember to use their imaginations, would they be so quick to overlook the destructive consequences of some of what they do everyday? I think this question is key.

Now i'm going to get back to acting like a turtle.

Posted by: Anjali at August 15, 2004 03:33 PM

Maybe adult imagination is just different. I made my first adult trip to the zoo last month. It was amazing. Watching the polar bears was the best part. Polar bear politics is eerily familiar. It was a really hot day and Submissive Bear wanted to go for a swin. Dominant Bear was doing somethiong over in the corner. Every time SB edged towards to pool, DB would shoot him a dirty look, which SB would pretend not to notice while backing casually away from the pool. Finally, DB decided to take a swim just to spite SB--you could totally tell because DB kept glancing over his shoulder to "catch" SB sneaking towards the water.

Maybe the difference betwen kids and adults is that adults prefer to project their experiences onto animals rather than vice versa.

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