One of the secrets in life, I maintain, is finding the correct standard of comparison. Compare ourselves to the right people and all of us will seem, comparatively, quite sane.
For instance, take the matter of obsessions.
We humans are strange beings. We fall in compulsive love with the darnedest things. Things like porcelain dolls or old matchbooks or dead bugs impaled on pins. Given the wherewithal, we will collect hundreds of our beloved objects, filling shelves and drawers and attics and odd corners with the objects of our affections.
And, being human, we will be certain that our own particular obsession is a naturally compelling and even sensible thing, whereas spending your kids’ inheritance on your obsession is anything but sensible and is, in fact, a bit cracked.
There was a time when each of us lunatics lived more or less in solitude, with no one to share our passions with. If we were extremely lucky, we might find out that there was an annual gathering of fellow tchotchke collectors in Left Armpit, Missouri. Once a year we could bask in fellowship and wallow in the minutia of our collections that had already driven one spouse away and was currently working its magic on another.
But mostly we were eccentrically alone.
Today, all that has changed. With the internet you can be instantly in contact with hundreds or even thousands of your monomaniacal brethren around the world. Now you can dwell in an electronic community that can reassure you on a daily basis that you are, indeed, normal.
You’re not. In fact, you’re nuttier than a box full of peanut brittle, but you belong to a self-reinforcing community, so that makes it all right.
Having established these good folks as a suitable basis for comparison, we can look at my own extended obsessions with certain exotic animals. I have spent years trying to meet the objects of my obsessions, but I think I can successfully argue that I have kept out of the actual loony category.
For instance, since I was quite young, I have been in love with cheetahs. All of the large, wild cats are wonderful, of course, but cheetahs are special. They are beautiful, surprisingly docile, and even friendly. However, it would be hard to have a collection of them filling up your house. Setting aside the legalities, it’s pretty immoral to keep wild animals as pets. Not to mention that it is bloody expensive to have a facility with cheetah-sized running room.
So even though I finally have one cheetah who’s a friend (his name is Victor), that’s where it stops. I can call him (sometimes he even comes), can listen to him purr, and watch him move with his own incredible grace without any urge to start a collection. I will admit to daydreaming about taking him home to live with me, but, truly, I’ve never had the urge to start a cheetah collection.
The second great love to arrive, a bit later in life, was with the orangutan.
When an alligator looks at you, it’s like going eye to eye with a shark. There’s nothing inside but a finely honed set of instincts. And if you happen to come face to face with a lion, aside from feeling very small, you are likely to be acutely conscious of how very edible you are. But look into the eyes of an orangutan and you are immediately aware that there is someone inside looking back at you, trying to figure you out. I find their eyes sad, but very, very aware.
I’ve had the chance to meet a couple of orangutans and I’ve found them living up to their eyes. Surprisingly gentle, tactile, and non-aggressive, each has seemed to enjoy both the attention and the company. I’d love to have one as a friend, but I’d as soon put a trusting child in a cage as own an orangutan. Zoos know how to take care of them and may be their last refuge as their habitat is destroyed. But keep them as pets? Gather my own troop? Pas moi!
My most recent obsession has been with rhinos. (Anybody notice we seem to be moving up in size here?) I have absolutely no logical defense for this one. Rhinos are big, surrealistically ugly, and frequently pretty aggressive. They’re dumber than posts but strong enough to attack motor vehicles and win. They can’t see worth a darn so they mostly rely on their acute (but fallible) hearing to determine friend or foe. Given their mass, once they’ve started a charge, they’re hard for anyone, including themselves, to stop.
So what do I see in them? Well, I was raised with an English Bulldog, so I’ve got a bad case of so-ugly-it’s-cute. Secondly, in their lumbering stupidity, I see a kind of vulnerability. Finally, of course, we’ve been doing our best to drive them to extinction so morons can use their horns (actually keratin, the stuff our fingernails are made of) as completely useless medicines and aphrodisiacs. And I’m a sucker for innocent victims.
I’ve had a chance to meet both the black rhino (diceros bicornis, which is Greek for two-horned followed by Latin for…two-horned) and the Indian Rhino (Greek for horned nose followed by Latin for one-horned…clever people, these biologists).
The black rhino has a prehensile upper lip which is incredibly strong and feels as if it had a real bone in it. Famously the most aggressive rhino, this guy I met, named Little, was feeling safe and so was quite gentle about taking food out of my hands. I got slimed a bit, but was in heaven.
I’ve met a number of Indian rhinos, but the first was Gram, a big bull. Indians also have a prehensile upper lip, but it’s not as stiff as the black rhino’s. We were told to put our fruits well into Gram’s mouth, so this time the slime came almost to the elbow. One again, despite some intimidating teeth, he was as gentle as could be.
Perhaps it’s not too surprising by this time for me to claim I’ve had barely had a twinge to start my own rhino collection. They’re a bit big. I’m willing to give money to save the species. I’ve got pictures of both Gram and Little on my wall. But, honestly, I’ve hardly ever had a thought about how one would look in my back yard.
Well, maybe a small thought.
Coming full circle and comparing myself to my neighbors who fill their houses with their own compulsive collecting, I can declare that my sort of obsession is inherently superior to theirs. Clearly it is that moral transcendence that keeps me from collecting cheetahs and orangutans and rhinos.
That, and lack of money. And, oh yes, there’s the fact that those same neighbors would turn me in in a heartbeat.