January 7, 2011

Faith, Hope and Charity / David Siler

A surprising lesson from the animal kingdom

David SilerMy recent trip to Africa was chock full of many beautiful spiritual lessons, but one in particular came as a surprise.

Our trip was all about experiencing solidarity with people from a culture vastly different than our own, and I did experience this sense of oneness in profound ways over and over again.

What I did not expect was to learn this lesson so profoundly from some African animals.

On our last day in Tanzania, we finally got a “day off” from visiting Catholic Relief Services programs and had the privilege of visiting one of the country’s many national parks.

As we drove through the park, we were blessed to see just about every African animal imaginable.

After a couple of hours, I began to notice that nearly every time we saw a herd of zebra, they were drinking or grazing alongside a completely different breed of animal—the gnu—also called a wildebeest.

I asked our tour guide if there was a reason for this phenomenon, and he explained that these two animals work together to survive.

The zebra has excellent eyesight and the gnu has a keen sense of smell so they each use their best asset as a defense mechanism to stay aware of impending danger—most notably other animals that would like to eat them for dinner. So what the zebra doesn’t see, the gnu smells, and what the gnu doesn’t smell, the zebra sees.

Our guide explained that, in addition to these survival skills, zebras have teeth on the top and bottom of their gums—just like a horse—making them best suited to graze on taller grass, while gnus have only lower teeth, making them suited to eat the grass low to the  ground. It makes them perfect dining partners.

My mind immediately became aware of the lesson here for humans. It is that our diversity—or things which make us different, when brought together—makes us all much better than we are on our own. I need your best gifts and you need mine.

We spend so much time and energy focused on what makes us different than other people—those who don’t look like us, think like us, talk like us or live like us—that we miss the absolute blessing that God made us different for a reason.

Not only do we notice our differences, but we sometimes go to war, kill, imprison, shun or hate others because of those differences. Certainly, some differences are worth fighting for, but most are just superficial.

Racism, sexism and all of the other “isms” are still alive and well in our world. They always have been and, sadly, probably always will be.

But we Catholic Christians are called by God to look well beyond our external differences to our internal likeness.

Since every one of us was created in the image and likeness of God, we can conclude that God is pretty diverse.

(David Siler is executive director of the Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries. E-mail him at dsiler@archindy.org.)

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