Today is Dian Fossey’s birthday.
The American zoologist extensively studied gorilla groups over a period of 18 years in the mountain forests of Rwanda. Her 1983 book, Gorillas in the Mist, combines her scientific study of the mountain gorilla at Karisoke Research Center with her own personal story and was famously made in to a movie starring Sigourney Weaver. Fossey was murdered in 1985; the case remains open.
Called one of the foremost primatologists in the world while she was alive, Fossey, along with Jane Goodall and Birutė Galdikas, were the so-called Trimates, a group of three prominent researchers on primates (Fossey on gorillas; Goodall on chimpanzees; and Galdikas on orangutans) sent to study great apes in their natural environments. (Source: Wikipedia)
I remember watching Gorillas in the Mist. I must have been 8 or 9 at the time. I can’t say I remember much of the movie now or recall with any clarity what I thought of it at the time. Truth be told, I haven’t given a great deal of thought to Dian Fossey in all these years.
But today, with the Google Doodle and with a friend’s Facebook Status message I did think about her. This is my friend’s status message.
Happy Birthday Dian Fossey! Without your sacrifice, we wouldn’t have had the pleasure of meeting our mountain gorilla friends in Rwanda in 2008. The more I read about the likes of Dian Fossey, the more I am in awe. To make the world a better place- a single minded decication, unwavering passion, eccentricity, damn-the-world attitide and lot of sacrifice is required. None of them led a so called ‘normal life’. How many of you parents would want your child to be that person?
I started typing a response to her message on Facebook and then realised it would be very long and thought I would try and put down what I think over here instead.
So, would I want my child to be that person? Would I want them to be a crusader, a person who rights wrongs? Who has tunnel vision when it comes to their passion? Who would do anything to see what they want come to fruition?
Both yes and no.
You know, it’s funny, when parent’s fill out school application forms, we’re sometimes asked semi-essay type questions. What do you think a good education should do for a child? What books would you like your child to have read by the time they’re 15? What qualities do you want your child to have?
And parents of course are always striving to word that answer which will secure them a seat. Holistic, well-rounded, passionate, good human being, know their own mind, etc are all words that frequently make it to the answer.
And when parents talk amongst themselves, we often say “Well I just want my son/daughter to do something they really love. Something they’re passionate about.” I’ve said that myself, and it’s something I believe in.
But then I wonder… would I say that about anything my child chooses to do? Of course if they think they’re calling in life is to rob banks, I’d have difficulty getting on board with it… but assuming that their passion was legal, would I be able to fully support their choices? Choices that put them in harms way. That take them far away from their parents. But choices that are about more than them. About more than the individual.
We say a lot of things before we become parents. We say many things when our children are small and before those situations arise.
When my first born was very little I was often asked (by carnivorous friends who no doubt were baiting me a bit) whether I would mind if he ate meat. I very confidently said that when he was older it was his choice to make, and that while I would prefer it if he were a vegetarian I wouldn’t stand in his way if he wanted to eat a burger. Fast forward to four years later and at a birthday party my boy wants to eat a chicken lollipop. Every single cell in my body screamed NO DONT EAT IT! Of course I presented a calm face and tried to dissuade him, but he wouldn’t budge. So I let him have a nibble and I can’t tell you how happy/relieved/triumphant I was when he said yuck and ran away.
Later as I retold the story to a friend, I wondered aloud why it bothered me so much. My husband eats meat and I certainly don’t mind that. I’m not one of those vegetarians who can’t abide meat at the table when I eat out. So why such an extreme reaction now? And why was my son’s dislike of the lollipop almost a personal victory for me?
“Because unlike your husband, your son is a part of you. He came from you and so what he does will always affect you on a much deeper, cellular level”.
The example I have used is of course a small, trivial issue and no where in the realm of saving the world and its gorillas. But there is a truth here.
Our children are an extension of ourselves. We constantly look for ourselves in them – physical and character traits that let us say “Oh he/she is just like me” or “She looks just like her father” “or “he sounds like me when I was a child.”
They are the embodiment of our every secret wish and desire unfulfilled… though it is wrong of us as parents to saddle our children with these burdens. And it doesn’t have to be “Oh I want my kid to be a surgeon”.. it’s in the small things too: “I hope he’s an extrovert… I was so shy as a child”… can be a burden on them. Sometimes I think even our desire for our children to find that one great passion is in response to our inability to have found our own. And our children become our passion.
So then how, after years of this obsessive love… because that is what it is… are we supposed to wave goodbye and say “Yes… go to some terribly dangerous part of the world and be brave.” “Go and live without all the comforts I have surrounded you with all these years and do that great thing” How do we find the courage to do that?
Right now, I can tell you that I wont want to say goodbye. I will want to hold on to them tight and cry and say “Please don’t go…we love you so” like those Wild Things. I will want at that moment for them to have a safe, boring job which they can complain to me about via their inter-galactic phone once a week.
Though I’m quite sure that even if I did do that, I would want my children to still carry on with their grand plan and chase that impossible dream.
But to always remember to call their mother and say that they’re doing ok.