Sunday, December 11, 2011


Erin posted this quote from an NPR story on Facebook, this morning.

“Not only will rats frantically work to free their trapped cage mate; they will do so even when there’s a tempting pile of chocolate chips nearby, the study reveals. Instead of leaving their pal in the trap and gobbling the candy all by themselves, rats will free their cage mate and share the chocolate.”

To which she added, “Rats can do this people. Come On!

Patty Mason designed this experiment to study the evolutionary roots of empathy and wrote up her conclusions in the journal, Science.

Maybe Patty Mason, the scientist at The University of Chicago watched the “Secret of NIHM” too many times when she was young. Maybe rats don’t have a vivid memory of what chocolate tastes like and it is easy for them to ignore a pile of chocolate. Maybe in fact that is a good and noble rat.

Most of my thinking has revolved around the question of how such an anthropomorphically despised animal could be so ethical, and we so apparently lacking. Maybe our folk lore is all wrong, the rat as noble beast, the human not so much. But wait a minute. If we humans saw another human being caught in a trap, surely we would work to extricate that person, before reaching for a snack. That is given a visible tangible trap that can be mechanically sprung. Heck yah! I would be there and working hard at getting any person out of it, not just my cage mate. Of course there is the odd time or two I have driven by an accident. Granted others had stopped and I reasoned that I was not a nurse, doctor or otherwise in any way skilled to assist. Rats can’t rationalize.

But, truly, people are often in much more complicated and even invisible traps. And that is where it gets tricky and time and chocolate are often very helpful. Helpful because it takes patience and understanding; first to even recognize the trap that another person is in and then to slowly, cautiously proceed. Chocolate needed just on general principles.

I remember giving a 13th birthday party for a young man who had just come out of one of Virginia’s mental institutions into therapeutic foster care… not because he was mentally ill, but that’s another story. He threw the presents in my face and stomped out of the room. My first lesson in how truly there is no simple or glib answer to complicated human traps. I offered to take him back to the store to return the presents and get whatever he wanted. No, that wouldn’t work, he wasn’t allowed in the store because he had been caught shoplifting there.

Five years later on his 18th birthday, he had learned how to be happy and I knew just what to get him for his birthday. I held my breath and sent him off on a train to New Mexico to visit his Mom. It was a journey of immense proportions. The trap was sprung. It took a lot of time, a lot of patience and mostly in Jerzy Kosinski’s words “being there.” He was lucky, he had the heart to make it, others did not. My daughter found his picture on Facebook. In the photo, the is sitting with his son, a huge and genuine smile on his face. I haven’t contacted him, it would only be one of those glib momentary things, how could it be otherwise after all these years. I think of him often and hope his life is what he wants it to be.

And then there is the question, what if you are the person in the trap. That’s a different puzzle, because first you have to see that it is there, or allow someone else to point it out to you. Not easy. Only then the hard work of finding a way out can begin. There are ways to get help, twelve step programs, psychoanalysts, good friends who will abide with you. The you tube video of a the cage mate frantically searching for the trap door, which is what these rats did, while a pile of chocolate chips waits to be shared puts the level of difficulty of the two separate tasks in stark perspective. A trap door is a relatively straightforward task. Still it is worth noting that these rats would free the captive, even if the rat was released into another cage and they did not get to do the rat dance of joy and play with their mate. It is also interesting that they learned how to free their mates and eventually became masters of quicker releases.

Many of us have that altruistic disposition. But just now, I think we have entered a world of sharp and nearly violent differences of opinion and some of us just don’t seem to care what happens to the less fortunate. Some of us just don’t get that we, here on this small and increasingly fragile planet, are all cage mates. This calloused attitude will inevitably affect the poor of the world first. They are undefended against the changes that will erupt in the climate, in food supplies, politics and the like. Sooner or later it will affect everyone. Even the rats will find their efforts in vain. What good does it do to spring a trap when the world you escape into is no longer habitable? The rats will hardly notice and carry on as long as there is air to breathe and something to eat. They do have that beautiful single-mindedness of purpose. They proceed without question with what is necessary for their survival. Nature does that, much like the ants that Congo-line into the kitchen directly without fail to the spot of raspberry jam on the counter. How do they do that?

Stephen Hawking has announced that we had better ready the space ships; he thinks we have maybe 100 years left on this planet. He wasn’t clear on what exactly would be the instrument of our demise, our aggressive nature perhaps, or a final despoiling of this planet. My question is not, how we are going to get to another planet. I am relatively certain humankind can find a technological answer to space travel. It is not a problem, for us humans, trap springing of a certain kind. After all, “no matter where you go, there you are.”

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