Cutting Through Abstractification

Cutting Through Abstractification
Rev. Anthony David
August 30, 2009

I begin with a story about one of my cats, who was originally named Xena (as in “The Warrior Princess,” after a favorite TV show of the time) but we soon realized that the better name was Zeno (as in “we made a mistake about something very crucial, but we’re going to make the best of it.”) Zeno passed away back in 2003, but he’s still with us in spirit and memory.

The story happens in Chicago. My family and I are living on the south side, in Hyde Park, right there on the campus of the University of Chicago. We’re living up on the third floor of an apartment, perhaps 100 yards away from the corner of 57th Street and Woodlawn, which was a very busy intersection—students and professors and all kinds of people intent on going someplace, either a university building or a café, or market, or bookstore. There was a bus stop at the corner as well, so at certain times of the day, there’d often be a line of people waiting.

That’s usually when Zeno would show up. With his mysterious cat eyes, he loved to watch people in all their busy-ness. He loved to be loved, and offered himself without any hesitation or shame to people’s caresses. It was all easy as pie, there at the corner of 57th and Woodlawn—just like shooting fish in a barrel. On a daily basis, he would come down the three flights from our apartment and settle right in the middle of things: people in midstride, people waiting in line, the whole world turning. We knew that this was his regular habit because, also on practically a daily basis, we got phone calls. People leaving messages on our answering machine. “Did you know that your cat is on the corner of 57th and Woodlawn?” “In case you’ve been looking for your cat, just wanted you to know that he’s on the corner of 57th and Woodlawn.” Helpful voices all, but tinged with anxiety, as if something were wrong. It would make us laugh, because we knew Zeno was just fine. Doing what he loved to do. People watching. Loving and being loved.

It led me then—and it leads me now—to wonder about how he saw things. And not just him, but non-human animals in general. The mystery of animal sight and experience. How this moment is being experienced right now, by our beloved pets.

A fascinating answer to all this comes from Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science from the University of Illinois who is also autistic and has used her autism as a bridge to the animal world. “Normal human beings,” she says, “are blind to anything they are not paying attention to. [But] my experience with animals, and with my own perceptions, is that animals and autistic people … don’t have to be paying attention to something in order to see it. Things like jiggly chains pop out at us; they grab our attention whether we want them to or not.” That’s what Temple Grandin says. The details are riveting. Animals and autistic people can’t not see them. It’s like Mr. Monk on TV, compelled to touch each parking meter as he walks on by. It’s like my cat Zeno who couldn’t resist the sudden movement of a twirly plastic thingy. It’s like the dog who’s barking his head off, but we’re not sure at what.

It’s also like 1200 pound cows who refuse to enter into a cattle chute because they are so utterly distracted by the thing that lies there at the chute entrance: a white Styrofoam coffee cup. Cows freaking out, crowding, crushing together, as if they had come face to face with a mountain. Leading to conditions that are extremely dangerous for the human handlers. And to this as well: an entire line at a cattle-handling facility shut down. A delay that costs $200 a minute. All because of a tiny coffee cup.

It’s for exactly such reasons that Temple Grandin is often called in to do a consult. The head honchos of farms and meat packing plants, calling her in a panic because the cattle or the pigs or the chickens are acting in bizarre ways and all the resident experts can’t for the life of them figure out why—so she comes on the scene and, bam, just like that, she figures it out. To them, she’s a miracle worker; but all she says is that she just sees things the way animals see them. She sees the details that are spooking them because her autism opens her up to that; the very same details grab at her and won’t let her go as well. Seemingly wrong details, as in sparkling puddles, shiny spots on metal, little pieces of moving plastic, sharp contrasts of light and dark, slowly rotating fan blades, and so on. Details that don’t register in most people, details to which we can be utterly oblivious….

“That’s the big difference between animals and people, and also between autistic people and nonautistic people,” says Temple Grandin. “Animals and autistic people don’t see their ideas of things; they see the actual things themselves. We see the details that make up the world, while normal people blur all those details together into their general concept of the world.” We abstractify, and these abstractifications become our reality.

Two famous psychology experiments make this point plain. One comes from psychologist Daniel Simons, and it’s called Gorillas in Our Midst. People are shown a videotape of a basketball game, and they are asked to count how many passes one of the teams makes. Then, a little while into the tape, while everyone is sitting there counting passes, a woman wearing a gorilla suit walks onto the screen, stops, turns, faces the camera, and beats her fists on her chest. Fifty percent of all people involved in the experiment fail to see the gorilla. Ask them if they saw something weird, and they say, no—don’t know what you are talking about. People abstractify. They live in their abstractifications.

NASA did a study with commercial airline pilots, and the results were full-on scary. The pilots were put in a flight simulator and asked to do a bunch of routine landings. But on some of the landing approaches, the experimenters added the image of a large commercial airplane parked on the runway, something a pilot would never see in real life. One quarter of the pilots landed right on top of the airplane. They never saw it. About this, Temple Grandin says, “I’ve seen photographs of the study, and what’s interesting is that if you’re not a pilot, the parked plane is obvious. You can’t miss it, and you don’t have to be autistic, either. […] But if you are a professional, expecting to see what a professional normally would see, there’s a 25 percent chance [you’ll land right on top of it.]” People abstractify—and professionals doubly so.

Which is not to say that abstractification or professionalism are bad things. Being able to cut through the countless details of our sensory existence to get to what’s relevant is often a very good thing, and allows us to focus on the task at hand. Yet as with anything, there must be a balance. Getting lost in abstractification can get us unto trouble. The professionalized map in our heads at times can get so out of whack with the reality before us that some kind of collision is bound to happen.

There are so many ways in which this can happen. An entire philosophy of scientific change has been built upon this insight—I’m thinking in particular of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Then we could talk about group behavior and groupthink—people impossible to talk with because they are swallowed up by their slogans. Two words: partisan politics.

And then there is this: fear: shame: people who could almost be said to professionalize in these human emotions: people for whom a traumatic event has happened, and the pain is so great it becomes who they are and crowds out every other possibility. It becomes the map in our heads determining how and where we land our planes, determining everything we see. Self-fulfilling prophesy.

But I remember one day, back in Chicago; I was one of those people walking towards the corner of 57th Street and Woodlawn; I was caught up in the abstractification of some worry. And there was Zeno, sitting there on the sidewalk like he owned the spot, watching me with his eyes of mystery. All the details evident to his Zen master eyes. And right then, I felt opened up, released, connected to the moment, restored to my senses. I laughed, I kneeled down, I pet his soft hair. He leaned into me, closed his eyes in bliss. All would be well. Everything was going to be OK.

There are all sorts of reasons why we are here today, in this blessing of the animals service, and surely one of them has to do with how animals helps us cut through our human penchant for abstractification, and release us to be bigger than our mere ideas of things. Especially emotionally. How animals heal our hearts.

Listen to this amazing story that comes from a book entitled Animals as Teachers and Healers. “When I was five years old,” says Sonja Nadeau, “a dog bit me very severely and I had to have nearly 400 stitches in my face. He was my neighbor’s dog, a cranky old cuss, and he was sick. When I went near to comfort him, like I always did with sick or injured animals, he was on me instantly, tearing at my face. The next thing I remember, I was on the sofa at my friend’s house and her parents were sobbing. ‘Oh my God, her face … her face …’ I didn’t know what they were talking about, I must have been in shock, and I said, ‘What do you mean? What’s wrong with my face?’ And they thoughtlessly handed me a mirror.

“I was in the hospital for about three weeks, and the pain was terrible. Afterwards, people’s comments were terrible. I don’t think I ever really faced that time in my life—I just put it away. The fear continued to look large, even as the scar faded and became harder to see. But years later in the safety of a small group, I finally got the courage to bring it up. I talked about the accident and the scarring of my face and how this affected my self-image and my feelings of trust in the world. Our group leader, a man of Native American descent, said, ‘I think it’s time for you to go see Waluna.’

“Now Waluna was his white timber wolf. I was scared to death at the prospect, and yet somehow on that particular evening, I knew it was time. So we went out, through the gate, to Waluna’s pen, went inside. Waluna was a huge wolf with ice-blue eyes, and as she locked eyes with me, her owner released her from her lead, and then he stepped out of the pen. I was alone with this wolf.

“What Waluna did next amazed me. She came over to me and jumped up, putting both paws on my shoulders, never once breaking eye contact. Then she leaned forward and begin making tiny bites all along the faded scar line on my face. She went all along its length with these tickling little nibbles, very slowly and very gently. I knew instantly that in her own way she was mending my face. I stood, not moving a muscle, my eyes squeezed shut. I opened them when Waluna began licking the scar and licking my face. There really are no adequate words for this: I felt a tremendous healing ripple run through me. It wasn’t just my face that Waluna made okay, it was the fear that had been with me for years. In that moment, it had just melted away. The wolf’s eyes met mine again, then she jumped down and left, as simple as that.

“After that night, I finally had courage enough to look at all those fears I’d carried for so many years, and to come to peace with them. The wolf let me know that I could handle those memories, work through them, and that I would be all right.”

Bless our animal companions. Cat or wolf, dog or bird, rabbit or turtle or more, bless them for cutting through our abstractifications of heart and mind. Bless them for bringing us back to the sanity of the precious moment, here and now, and all will be well, everything is going to be all right.