Living in the Zoo

When I was a very young child, I loved going to the zoo. I wanted to see the animals in real life. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the animals in the zoo seemed bored, depressed, and a bit neurotic (I didn’t know that word at the time, but I knew something was off). I still remember visiting the Central Park Zoo on my first trip to New York City. One of the polar bears swam in a triangle, pushing off from one part of the pool, gliding in a moment to another side, then pushing off again, and so on, around and around, each push with each paw the same as the last lap. The animals didn’t seem to like living in the zoo.

When I went on safari later in life, I got to see a whole different side of the animals– majestic, engaged, with a range of emotions. Sure– there were moments of terror, when a lion moved in, but not constant neuroticism. I sometimes say, half-joking, that I learned everything I need to know about human behavior waiting for a baboon troop to cross the road. Baboons were playing, fighting, joking, eating, mating, grooming, defecating, and all the other parts of life.

Back in “the real world”, I’ve realized, especially as I’ve gotten older, that you can’t cheat biology. You can try, and many of us have limits beyond what we know, but you have to sleep. You can chug caffeine and maybe get away with a night without sleep, but what happens the next day? You can subsist on fast food, but what happens over the years? You can work in a job that’s not fulfilling, but what happens over the decades?

What happened? We put ourselves in the zoo, along with the lions and tigers and giraffes. We’re out of our natural habitat. We don’t eat, move, sleep, or socialize the way we evolved– we do those things according to the dictates of the zoo. Many of us are like the polar bear, going through the motions without a real sense of place or purpose. We wake up tired, get in our cars in the morning (or we did), drive to work, often fail to have any meaningful conversations, drive home, run some errands, eat some processed food, mindlessly consume content from someone else, go sleep too late, and repeat.

We’re living in the zoo, and many of us have the same symptoms as the other animals– we’re bored, depressed, and neurotic. Maybe not all the time, but enough to notice that something isn’t right.

We have even “optimized” the places that used to offer connection– drive through drop off lines at school, drive through pick up lines at restaurants, a chance to process some email instead of talking to family at dinner. Or even worse, the lure of the dopamine hit from social networks or click bait.

(Perhaps not coincidentally, suicide rates are climbing, along with addiction to painkillers.)

Now COVID-19 has added a whole other dimension to the social isolation and economic uncertainty of the zoo. The impact in deaths and dollars is staggering, and still growing, but the impact on lives will play out over decades. (Apologies for not remembering where I saw this, but this stuck with me: In fifty years, the world will be run by people home schooled by day drinkers.) In a society where loneliness is already a problem, what will the impact be?

What to do about all this? I can’t say I know. But don’t try to cheat biology.

Get enough sleep.

Eat healthy food.

Exercise however you can.

Connect with people— those you are stuck together with and those you are stuck apart from. It’s pretty crazy that we have the power to talk to people all over the world, and we’re more isolated that ever.

Find ways to help, however small. And if you’re feeling down about the state of the world, don’t wait for someone else to make it better. Start yourself. The world never changed by wishing.

For all the negativity above, I’m a big fan of the zoo. (I usually say I like modern medicine, but we are really botching this one, especially in the US.) I like that too much food is more of a problem than too little. I like the internet and its knowledge and distractions. I like supermarkets. I like video calls. I like having lots of great books on my Kindle. I like that I can talk to friends and relatives. I’m not suggested that we get rid of the zoo, just that while we have to live and work here, we make the zoo work for us, too.

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