Why It’s Okay To Love A Tortoise

Why do we love?

I am not going to give a comprehensive answer that explains why we love certain people and things more than others, even when those others might seem more deserving of our love, but Peter Himmelman’s beautiful and provocative post about mourning the passing of his pet tortoise more than tragedies happening around the world (as well as an article from Science News about empathy for animals), has caused me to feel that I may be on to at least a few animating principles which can help us to better understand not only why we love, but how to expand the range of those we love.

In short, it all comes down a really simple and seemingly counter-intuitive principle.  Namely, it’s all about us.

Peter wonders why he feels the loss of his tortoise more than the loss of those murdered in recent terror attacks, and actually he is rather too tough on himself, in my opinion.  In fact, the answer to his query lies in the question itself.  He mourns the death of his tortoise, precisely because it is his!  And not only is that not a bad thing, that awareness holds the seeds of the expanded compassion he wishes for, and is even alluded to by Peter himself even if he didn’t realize it when he wrote his post.

Himmelman writes, “We love the things and ideas that we give our time and attention to.  Or more simply, we love what we give our love to.”  In other words, and often contrary to what we have been taught, we don’t love people and things and therefor, shower them with our time, attention and affection.  It’s actually the opposite.  We shower them with our time, attention and affection and, over time, we come to love them. 

Love is not zero-sum, and there is nothing wrong with missing a tortoise that has been a part of our lives more than a person who has not.  The only question is how we keep expanding our network of connections to more people and things, so that when we need to, we react with the love that has been cultivated by our previous investment of emotion and connection. 

Our networks of connection – web of relationships, if your prefer — will never include all people, and it will always leave us feeling more connected than we may think appropriate to some, and less connected than we think appropriate to others.  But such calculations of appropriateness are abstract, and love is not.  Love grows where it is nurtured, not simply nurtured after we have found it.  So the more love you give, the more love you will feel – be it for a tortoise or a person.

To be human is to relate outward from who you already are.  That is the upshot of the new research in Science News.  And like my response to Peter, that research makes no apology for that being our starting point.  It’s what it means to be human – to both start with one’s self and to expand outward from there. 

To me a life well lived is not measured by how large or small one’s webs of relationship may be, especially as some people are more private than others, or with whom, but whether whatever size or with whomever they are, they are generally expanding.  And when that is the trajectory, great things happen.  When not, less so.  All of which reminds me of a powerful story whose outcome hinged on how people felt about who was in there network and who was not.  The story is almost exactly 25 years old, but it is as current today as it was back then.

August 19, 1991.  A street corner the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, NY.  A car runs into a little boy , Gavin Cato, falls, critically injured.  The driver of the car is also injured, but not seriously.  NYPD arrives on scene, as does Hatzolah, the Jewish volunteer ambulance service.  FDNY paramedics were on their way, but not yet on scene.  And then, with what I am sure were the very best of intentions, the police turned to the volunteers from Hatzolah and said, “take your guy, and get out of here”.

“Your guy” meant the Jewish driver, and with that instruction, Hatzolah took “their guy” even though he was far less critically injured.  But what if?  What if the police had not made that distinction?  What if the volunteer ambulance team members had looked at little Gavin Cato and said, “He is our guy too, and he is in worse shape, so we are taking him — We are taking our guy”?

Would Gavin Cato have survived?  Would parents not gone through the unspeakable pain of burying their son?  Would riots have not erupted?  Would Yankele Rosenbaum have not been killed simply because he was Jewish?  We can’t know for sure.  But we can certainly know that if people were always being taught to expand their definition of who is “their guy”, whatever happened August 19th, and in the days that followed, would likely have been far better, or at least whole lot less bad.

Love, be it for tortoises, people, places, or anything else, always starts with what feels like our own.  The real question/challenge/opportunity is whether that definition of who and what is ours, is always moving outward.  If it is, most anything is possible, no matter how bad the news is on any given day.  And if it isn’t… well, read the headlines. 

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