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A chimpanzee named Mahale gave birth to a son in the middle of last November. Kucheza was born via c-section at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas and needed a couple of days of intense veterinary care before he could be reunited with his mother. When he was ready to be returned to Mahale, Kucheza was placed in a blue blanket on a cushion in the middle of an enclosure. You can watch the reunion of mother and baby here.
Mahale comes through the doorway and looks at the blanket. She sits and stares. There’s no movement from inside the blanket. Mahale looks away and rubs her nose. Then she rises to all fours and fixes her eyes on that blanket.
I don’t know enough about chimpanzee behaviour to interpret how she is feeling. Can she see Kucheza, but thinks perhaps that he is not living because he is so still? Is she lost in a kind of postpartum fog?
And then Kucheza moves. He stretches his little hand outside of the blanket. In a blink that took my breath away, Mahale scoops her baby up with the fiercest and quickest tenderness. She scoops with her left hand and holds Kucheza close to her body. Then with her right hand she cradles him, freeing her left hand to disentangle the blanket from around him so that she can hold him skin to skin. Mahale grunts softly. Her knees quiver as she surrounds him with her body. She looks at his face. She looks up. She looks down. She is still. I was one of the billions who watched this moment over and over with wonder.
The instinct that moves a mother to scoop up her babe like that and hold him close is the strongest instinct in nature, according to Charles Darwin. Susan Cain, in her book Bittersweet, quotes this bit of Darwin’s The Descent of Man:
The social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of his fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them…. Such actions as the above appear to be the simple result of the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive; for they are performed too instantaneously for reflection, or for pleasure or pain to be felt at the time.
Too instantaneously. That’s what we saw in Mahale: the instantaneous instinct to care for something small and helpless. The immediate sympathy that is quicker than the mind or the heart.
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkley, studies emotion and social interaction (and was heavily consulted for the Pixar film, Inside Out). In reflecting on Darwin’s work, Keltner said that “survival of the kindest” would have been a better moniker than “survival of the fittest” (the latter was coined a generation later by social Darwinist, Herbert Spencer). Survival of the kindest. Keltner says that “there’s nothing like our capacity for sorrow and caring for things that are lost or in need” (as quoted by Cain, Bittersweet, p. 14). Sadness ignites compassion, which brings people together. Shared sorrow connects us and helps us to survive.
In his book Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff tells the story of the death of his son, Eric, in a mountain climbing accident. Right in the middle of his raw reflections, he penned a sentence that has been a north star for me in my grieving and my writing. “I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench” (p. 63). Shared sorrow connects us. And we survive together in that kindness and solidarity.
We comfort one another with the comfort we have received from the God of All Comfort (2 Corinthians 1).
The God of All Comfort who said, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15)!
The God of All Comfort who sent to us the Sorrowful One, who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4). He connected himself to us by sharing our sorrow.
And though for a time it seemed as though the Kindest One did not survive (pierced and crushed as he was by the Fittest Ones), in the end, his kindness survived us. Revived us. Saved us (Titus 3:4-5). By his wounds we are healed.
Back in November, my siblings and I watched Mahale and Kucheza’s reunion. We loved it. So much. My sister was diagnosed with brain cancer just after Kucheza’s birth, and so as siblings, we found (and find) ourselves confronted with our own mortality, even as we continue to reel in the wake of our mom’s death. We have decided to imagine that Jesus, in his kindness, will give our mom the task of welcoming us into life on the other side of death. Our hands will stretch through the veil and in an instant – in a flash – in the twinkling of an eye – Mom will scoop us up with the fiercest and quickest tenderness. She’ll disentangle us from the clothes of the grave and hold us skin to skin.
Somehow, in that new order of things, the cords of sorrow that connected us will twist into cords of joy, and we will survive and flourish in everlasting kindness. Forever.
Note: On the morning of December 22, five weeks after Kucheza was born, he was found cradled in his mother’s arms, no longer breathing, having experienced head trauma (likely accidental) at some point during the previous night. Mahale loved Kucheza from the beginning to his early end. Rest in peace, little one.