The Demure Wisdom of the Chimpanzee

It's fascinating to watch the theatre of the mind, what slides by and what refuses to be forgotten. This week a fleeting image on a screen caught my eye and stuck in my psyche, echoing for days like an alarm that refused to be silenced. A scene of four men in white lab coats carrying off a defenseless chimp by her four limbs. That was all. It was an old documentary about arrogant, misguided practices. But my mind latched onto the image and couldn't shake it, especially the demure surrender of the chimpanzee.

But why did this scene in particular choose to torture me? The paper is filled with disturbances nowadays, far more current and pressing. Clearly this one evoked something in my unconscious needing to be recognized and articulated.

Gloriously, one tendril leads to another in our mysterious neural labyrinth. Not able to push away the pathos or the horror, it eventually blossomed into a recollected teaching by Marianne Williamson. We were at the National Cathedral at the height of the Iraq War. I was leading Shabbat rituals and she, well, she was the resident prophet. The nave was filled with 1,300 women; the theme was compassion.

I had taught about the tender wisdom of the womb, but Marianne spoke of the ferocious side of compassion evident in the animal kingdom, how utterly ruthless females are in protecting their young. Did we know that mother hyenas encircle their cubs when they eat? They circle, watch, and guard. If the males come close looking like they will disturb that food, the females go for blood.

Try telling one of those mother hyenas to control her anger! Or that she needs anger management skills. Her ferocity is encoded in her DNA, Marianne explained, and so is ours. So why don’t we take the same permission to be fierce, to protect the young of our own species? Where is the circle of our protection and where is our ferocity?

As for the chimpanzee, Marianne shared a startling study made in a chimp village in Africa. Scientists observed approximately 10% of the chimps looked depressed. They sat outside the camp, ate alone, appearing despondent. The researchers tried an experiment. They removed the depressed chimps from the camp for six months.

What do you think they found? In six months time, they returned to find all the chimps in the village were dead. The depressed chimps were the warning system. And they had removed the warning. The despondent animals were picking up something in the air, something wrong. Simply removing them removed the information that was vital to the whole.

Studies show that one in four American women now suffer from major depression.[1] Simply alleviating our symptoms with anti-depressants does not address the source of our distress. It simply removes the information that is coming through to us.

"Maybe we are depressed for a reason," said Marianne. "We can smell something in the air. There is a threat out there, and like the chimps in the village, removing the depression, is not the wise way."

In all traditions, the Feminine Face of God can be fierce when necessary. So it is with women. To be true to our instincts and the spirit of God within us, we need to tap the ferocious love within us to protect our children and all that is defenseless.

This can be brutal.

Being up all night with disturbing images that tear at our tenderness, feeling dread for the world and its helpless species—these discomforts goad us to move beyond our protected borders, to be ruthless when the day breaks.

Marianne’s call to wake up, stop overriding the pain, and take action was the clarion call I needed to hear. If we are awake, we are aware that we are living in dangerous times. Every misguided turn our so-called leaders make, every brutish act, and fiendish denial of reality demands more of us. More sensitive, wise, and kind efforts, more courageous articulations of the facts on the ground, more authentic connections with peace-loving people. Every one of our efforts is necessary to ballast this drunken ship we ride together.

The sweet and lovable chimpanzee, like multitudes of other humble species that are at risk now, are at our mercy. If we attune ourselves to their demure wisdom, we might find the ferocious compassion that we need.


Tirzah Firestone