Yes, Cincinnati zoo officials shot and killed Harambe, the silver back gorilla. Yes, that decision was taken in order to protect the life of a little boy who fell into the gorilla’s enclosure. No, it seems that tranquilizing him was not an option for a variety of reasons, including how long it takes for the drugs to work and the threat that the dart would have provoked him to lash out and harm the child. No, I am not all that troubled by this story, although the need to take down such a magnificent creature, especially due to no fault of his own, is sad.
Bottom line, and contrary to the people who have started “Justice for Harambe” campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, and with whatever media outlets they can interest, animals are not people too, and this story is capturing people’s attention for reasons that are about a great deal more than the fate of one gorilla. The question is, what is it really about?
I think it’s about innocence, the wish to feel in control, and the idea that in a world gone right, we would never be faced with painful choices, including ones when even doing everything a best as possible, might leave us feeling squeamish or otherwise less than happy. Well here’s the thing:
Life is full of unknowns, and we can’t control all the infinite variables which shape our lives.
1. Innocence and guilt are often not so black and white.
2. We are often less in control than we like to tell ourselves we are.
3. Under the best of circumstances, life often continues to present us difficult choices.
4. Even when we make the best possible choice, we may not feel perfectly happy.
Of course, the gorilla was innocent of any wrong doing – unless you count being a gorilla as somehow inherently bad or wrong. And of course, it would be so convenient if we could blame someone such as an irresponsible parent for the mishap. But even if we could, how would that justify putting the little boy in harm’s way? This simply is not about good vs evil, no matter how much some Harambe activists would have us believe. How often could all of us benefit from remembering how many of life’s circumstances are also not so easily reduced even when we too are most tempted in that direction?
And sure, I get the idea that if we could just blame this on a lax parent, or a failed fence which could have been noticed, or a million other things in human control, many people would be comforted by the notion that full safety is really just a matter of taking all the proper precautions. But life is full of unknowns, and we can’t control all the infinite variables which shape our lives. That is no excuse for taking stupid risks, or living otherwise irresponsible lives. It simply means that we should do our best to focus on what we can directly influence, and try hard to stop worrying about the rest. Believe me when I say that I appreciate how hard that can be, but ask yourself this: when is the last time that making control your dominant mode of thinking brought out either best in you, or in the results you sought to achieve?
As to those tough choices, the fact is they get tougher and tougher as life gets better and better. After all, choosing between good and bad is actually not so hard. People may differ about which is which, but once you make your decision about that, the rest is whole lot easier. The really tough decisions are deciding between competing goods, and those are the decisions which get more common as life improves. That is also what made the decision to shoot Harambe painful, and those who would simplify it, are simply trying to escape from that pain, I think.
And finally, even when we get all of the above and manage to make what we judge to be the best possible choice, there are often unresolved questions and feelings. “Happily ever after” is for fairy tales, which while developmental appropriate for children, are no way to live our lives. Instead, I would opt for “as happy as possible, for as long as possible, given those things which are beyond our control”. It’s about getting past regret without pretending that everything is, was, or ever will be “perfect”. It about celebrating the wisdom, if not the perfection, of a situation which is good enough for now, and hoping that tomorrow will be better still, without beating ourselves or others up too much for what wasn’t great today.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.