How to count when you’re an animal

I am kind of confused about what matters.

I just watched “The Babushkas of Chernobyl“, a documentary about old women who live in the poisonous zone around the Chernobyl reactor. It evoked themes I was somewhat surprised to find in this context (although perhaps less surprised to find in a documentary with that sort of framing). But, hell, there was so much belonging there. And a refusal to believe that their homeland, their own enchanted forest, might be dangerous. I cringed when I saw them pick and eat mushrooms, because they are repositories of radioactivity, and even I, grown up in Southern Germany, had encountered anxieties around contaminated mushrooms.

Throughout the film, the tone is clear: leaving home would have been worse. They even film a physician who mentions that the evacuated populations tended to die earlier, die “of anguish”, as well as a group of old women arranged on a bench, missing their village, still missing it. These women remind me of my grandmother in so many ways, my grandmother who was exiled from her home in Yugoslavia when she was eight, and who still recalls the village of her childhood. I could see her among them, wearing a colourful headscarf, sharing in on phrases like “Oh, the things we have seen! But what can you do?”. Unclear whether they are laughing, or crying.

It is a strange thing: I keep investigating the future, and when I think about it, I think big, abstractly (one might say I switch into “far mode“). But my investigations just bring me back to such present, human, animal things – things like the need to connect, and the wish to tell stories.

Oh, I always think we are so wise now (implying that myths are foolish superstition), but maybe we haven’t changed at all?

I’m not saying that we are mistaken in any special sense. I mean, there probably are some people who fool themselves with messianic stories of the salvation that technology will bring. But those whom I’ve encountered – people who have thought about it a lot – are all too aware of our human nature. When I talk about our need for narrative, they might call it a bias (I have stopped keeping up with all the different biases; they somehow seem to be the same thing, anyway), but we agree, anyway.

Well, maybe. I remember a talk I once gave, actually just over a year ago (have I really changed that much in a year?). In the question-and-answer session, I must have said something along the lines of mothers being biased in favour of their children such that a mother might choose to save her own child over others. I did not think much of it, and remember most of the experience as a few disdainful faces in the back of the lecture theatre, but during the after-drinks, someone said: “You know, that was quite a strange thing to say… about love being a bias and stuff”.

I guess so. It had not occurred to me. Just another of these animal things, loving your children. And now, I am feeling quite disturbed by this sense of not knowing anymore what the thing is that matters.

I’m not sure if I want to commit to saying anything about whether some species deserves to live or not. I have invested quite some time trying to transcend “common sense morality”, and I’m a fan of abstraction – no wonder I was such an admiring Kantian when I was sixteen. Surely, there is an absolute Good (or was it God, after all?) out there. Well, I don’t think that anymore. But I quite like being happy. And I see something in these frail animals we are.

I might smile indulgently at those battered babushkas, but actually, they might represent all there is that matters.

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One thought on “How to count when you’re an animal

  1. Pingback: The bookshop as remedy | Ronja's blog

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