The orangutan's gaze: A call to interior solitude

Captured reflection. Photo by csaveanu, Flickr

We saw the crowd before we saw the orangutan. My friends and I had just stepped into the malodorous Great Ape House at the National Zoo, trying to warm up a bit before continuing down the Zoolights path. The gorillas were already asleep, draped over hammocks, entangled in limbs, with one stately silverback sleeping upright in the back corner. But in the far right corner where the orangutans live, a formidable crowd was forming around one enclosure pane.

We saw his jutting jaw before we saw his body. The dusky orange male, looking like a shag carpet on holiday, stood on the ledge against the glass. His fists were raised and pressed at his eye level, and he kept turning his formidable underbite back and forth, back and forth, to survey the buzzing onlookers.

One friend and I horned our way into the corner of the gathering and put our foreheads close to the glass. His jaw snapped in our direction; we were in his line of sight. He two-stepped along the ledge to where we stood and solemnly regarded us. His chin was now parallel to the ground, his eyes focused on us.

I couldn't read his expression. Was he suspicious? Playful? Mocking? Was he wondering why so many bundled humans were pressed against his wall so late at night? Was he derisive because we couldn't tell time, didn't dress properly for his stinky home, weren't free to play like he was?

Two young boys darted around us and broke our gaze. His jaw turned elsewhere. I walked away. But I've found myself thinking about him since then. Had he wanted to stay up late? Were we visitors intriguing, annoying, or both? Would he remember tomorrow how today was different? Or would he not notice in the first place?

Obscured vision. Photo by Wiblick, Flickr
At the turn of another year when resolutions promulgate change, clog social feeds, and pit us all against each other in public self-improvement plans, I find myself wanting to be more like the oranguatan at the National Zoo. I want to put a wall of glass between myself and the world's increasing noise. A wall because I need space, silence, structure, solitude. But glass because I also need community, communication, connection, and clarity.

New York Times contributor Sherry Turkle started to get to what's been bothering me in a December 2013 op-ed about "The Documented Life," our society's growing propensity to interrupt our experiences to record them. She says (emphasis mine):
We don’t experience interruptions as disruptions anymore. But they make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything. [...] 
These days, when people are alone, or feel a moment of boredom, they tend to reach for a device. In a movie theater, at a stop sign, at the checkout line at a supermarket and, yes, at a memorial service, reaching for a device becomes so natural that we start to forget that there is a reason, a good reason, to sit still with our thoughts: It does honor to what we are thinking about. It does honor to ourselves. 
Some people may argue that posting or sharing our thoughts right away honors them through broadcast. I don't agree. Good thinking takes time. Consider the root of ruminate -- to chew the cud. True contemplation requires you to return to a thought, look at it from different angles, and let it stew in a dusty corner of your mind where it meets other, seemingly unrelated thoughts and then produces wisdom beyond your initial burst of inspiration.

That's the point when we do the most honor to our thoughts -- when we give them air and room, when we trust them to live and walk on their own. In doing so we're saying we trust ourselves as well, that we believe ourselves capable of arriving at greater, deeper truths. (Louis C.K. says it best, actually, and he also quotes Bruce Springsteen.)

High-wire act. Photo by Rik Goldman, Flickr

Part of my pull toward interior solitude -- creating space within you -- is also coming from my personal attempts to establish a writing routine. (My behavioral-based resolution for 2014? "Write every day -- at least 20 minutes, at least 300 words.") The more books I read on how to write, the more I hear a consistent refrain: Observe, observe, observe. Observe the world around you. Observe details and reactions. Observe your own feelings.

But here's what scares me about observation: It often requires not participating. Like, you're standing there, you're physically present, but you're listening. Not thinking about your next witty remark, not reviewing your to-do list, just paying attention to what's happening around you.

At this point you're probably thinking, "Julia's a creeper and I'm never getting drinks with her again because I'll end up in her novel." That's not what I'm saying. (Though your story about the cat in the drainpipe might end up in something. Sorry.) I'm saying that observation helps you communciate better. It cultivates your private self and adds substance -- elements which ultimately make whatever it is you have to say more meaningful.

Author Jonathan Franzen explains the "private self" concept well in this Atlantic article "How to Write: A Year in Advice":
So even as I spend half my day on the Internet—doing email, buying plane tickets, ordering stuff online, looking at bird pictures, all of it—I personally need to be careful to restrict my access. I need to make sure I still have a private self. Because the private self is where my writing comes from. The more I’m pulled out of that, the more I simply become another loudspeaker for what already exists. As a writer, I’m trying to pay attention to the stuff the people aren’t paying attention to. I’m trying to monitor my own soul as carefully as I can and find ways to express what I find there.
Hopefully, what you'll find in your own soul is substance -- the meaty, surprising, important stuff. The stuff that connects us on a universal level. I want to get good stuff out of myself. So I should put good stuff in. Right?

Good stuff in ... Photo by mirsasha, Flickr

I have found myself rooting for substance lately like a pig on a truffle hunt, and I've often come up short -- mainly, I think, because I have too many inputs, too little time, and not enough curatorial selectivity over the rotating exhibit that is my life. So now I'm examining the quality of whatever I'm consuming, be it mental, physical, commercial, or emotional.What will push me toward a fuller, smarter version of myself? What is worth the effort of consumption? What might I make of it?

Granted, not everything will pass muster, and fluff has its place. After all, where would I be without the brain-escaping pleasures of Downton Abbey? I just want to change the proportions. More good stuff in, more good stuff out. Simple to outline. Ridiculously hard to practice in an over-saturated life.

Then we arrive at the plain, sniveling truth: The quest for interior solitude scares me shitless. A friend asked today, "I have a life philosophy to 'follow the fear.' What do you think about doing that?" I stammered some inane, so-half-baked-it's-raw response about healthy vs. unhealthy risk, how fear can protect you, blah blah blah, neglecting to mention that this fundamental shift is happening at my core yet I'm terrified because a) I know it has to happen, b) I have no idea what will happen next, yet c) I'm fairly certain it's going to hurt.

I know I will benefit from space and silence. But asking for these things -- and making room in my life for them -- requires loss. I will have to sacrifice time and much-loved activities. I will need the willpower and discipline to restructure my days and hold myself to stronger standards. I will have to say no to myself and others so I can say yes to ... what, exactly? The unknown quotient intimidates me. I don't know what I'm expecting to emerge. I just know I need to see if anything does.

Now my orangutan/glass wall/wisdom of the great apes analogy breaks down, because the orangutan will never tell us what he's learned. He'll spend the rest of his days in his enclosure, wholly unto himself, and we'll never know what made his life meaningful to him.

This is where I, the human, win. After standing on the ledge with my fists against the glass, trying to make sense of the colorful babble happening a pane away, I will get to leave the zoo and share what I saw in captivity -- and ultimately be freer for it.

Seeing past the glass. Photo by GraphicReality, Flickr

Prayer #267: Monkey Business

Give me the courage to press against the glass containing me. Squint my eyes to see. Strain my ears to hear. Shape my lips to speak. Curl my hands in tight fists around the truth when it scurries past, and with it firmly in my grasp, help me beat it on the pane so hard I break through into the shocked crowd -- stunned to see in their midst an unformed beast taken aback by its own strength, surrounded by shards of what once was a wall, ready to lay bare what it heard howling in the night.