“Dana does her best to enrich the lives of the giraffes under her care, giving them brush to eat and toys to play with. Too much stimulation throws the giraffes off. The key is to balance chronic understimulation with the introduction of anything potentially enriching that giraffes might find upsetting or odd, which, it turns out, includes almost everything. “You can’t change it up too much, because they get squeamish and they space out,” Dana tells me. Last week, she adds, when the zebras kicked a blue ball over the fence into the giraffe enclosure, the giraffes refused to come out of the Giraffe House for the rest of the week. Deprive giraffes of necessary stimulation and they develop a distinctive behavioral syndrome that Dana calls “neurotic tongue.” If you go to a zoo and see giraffes licking the walls, it means that they are not well cared for.” –From Wild Things: Animal nature, human racism, and the future of zoos. By David Samuels. Harpers June 2012.
When I read this, I thought of myself. Of course, I think of myself all the time. But this time, it was like a bolt of lightning. I am those giraffes. There are so many potentially enriching activities I could do, I’m not even going to mention a single one. Suffice it to say that each is totally doable. But I become uneasy just thinking about introducing one outlandish something to my routine.
Last week I had the equivalent of zebras kicking a ball into my enclosure- a spoke on my bike wheel snapped. First, I had to walk all the way home with my bike on my shoulder. On the way, I saw a Vietnamese man pushing a child in a stroller. The child wore a black mask without eye or mouth holes, like an executioner’s mask. I tried to ask what it was about but the man spoke no English and ever since my mind has reeled attempting to categorize the experience. Further, without my bike, I had to walk to work. This meant instead of whizzing by everyone I had to plod along and have face-to-face encounters with strangers. Even when I avoided the interaction it was still just another form of interacting. I was stunned by how many homeless people are out at six am. I assumed they’re only outside in the afternoon when I stroll around the block, but they’re really there 24-7, fixed like sundials. In the end, my equilibrium returned only after replacing the wheel. And even a few days after that.
However, like the giraffes, if I remain too long and too much in my comfort zone, without being stimulated by the rivers of flux, I have my “neurotic tongue”. I isolate myself in my room wishing I didn’t have to pee so that I could just stay there, inside my room. I chew my nails and pick my skin. I fear being overwhelmed by the outside world and struggle not to tremble.
The key, at least for me, is to both respect and disrespect my comfort zone. It depends on the situation, and my sense of long-term progress. I am happy that now, unlike before in my life, I have the gall to set up boundaries in my life and say No to people when I need to. Also, I am not forcing myself to have extraordinary romantic adventures well outside the comfort-stratosphere. As far as disrespecting my comfort zone goes, it’s actually an easy, passive form of action. Opportunities are always knocking at the door; there’s no shortage. All that is required of me is to say Yes. But, for the most part, I’ve taken a liking to understimulation. No solicitors, please.