Compared to other mammals, elephant behaviour is the closest to human behaviour in terms of experiencing emotions like joy, grief, and anxiety. All of you have probably seen the news of a herd of endangered elephants in China trekking almost 500km from their habitat. Many of you may have seen this as a fascinating feat that was mildly entertaining but not something to fret over too much. Honestly, that was my reaction too. I am so accustomed to fast information on social media and amusing animal stories that this elephant adventure seemed like nothing more than another simple funny story. My reaction was just a soft smile as I saw the post on my Instagram feed while I lay in bed.
I never considered the challenges the elephants faced or the efforts being made by the conservationists to ensure their safety and wellbeing. I came across an article by The Guardian celebrating the start of the elephants’ return from their hike, and that was when I started appreciating everything that went into ensuring their safe journey.
The elephants were seen raiding shops for water, eating truckloads of pineapples and corn from farms, playing in the mud, bathing in a canal, sleeping in the middle of a forest, and much more (BBC). These antics were all caught on drones and social media posts from locals.
But why did they even go on the trek? Elephants are known to travel short distances but this was an enormous trek into unknown territory. One of the female elephants even gave birth! This is highly unusual because elephants will seek out safe known spaces for such a vulnerable moment.
The likely reason according to scientists is the need for resources like food, water, and shelter. Elephant conservation in China is a huge success and they’ve almost doubled the population of elephants from a few decades ago. However, with increased industrialisation and modernisation, habitat fragmentation and human disturbances are to be expected. For example, increased highways, roads, towns, etc interfere with natural pathways for animals. While there may be plenty of habitats, the size of the habitats may be too small or fragmented for the animals (BBC).
Another reason is that elephants are matriarchal. The oldest and wisest female lead the group of grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sons and daughters. The group started off as 17 elephants which included 3 males. The three males eventually moved off and travelled alone after hitting puberty, which is typical (BBC).
A team of about 8 were watching the elephants 24/7 via drones to ensure their wellbeing, and get information without disturbing the animals. Roadblocks, hundreds of emergency personnel, and hundreds of trucks of food have been placed strategically to guide the elephants across a safe path. This is a non intrusive way of guiding the elephants without stripping away their independence. Intrusive methods can aggravate elephants and make them more aggressive and less receptive to instructions (BBC).
How much of this sounds similar to us humans? Quite a lot right?
Why do we as humans go on adventures, rebel against rules and standards, or stray from a pre-designed roadmap? It’s usually to satisfy our deep desire to explore our identities, find who we are and what we value, and all of this culminates in more informed decisions about what we need as individuals to lead fulfilling lives.
Along the way, we will face many challenges. A fresh graduate that just moved out of their parents home may face financial difficulty in the first few years of their lives. A highly experienced worker in a specific field who decides to change their career path in their 40s may face competition from younger candidates and lack of skills in the new field. Even if we might think that we are alone in this journey, there are most likely many more like us embarking on an adventure of self-discovery. And an adventure isn’t always fun, it will entail stages which involve getting dirty, stressed, hungry, angry, needy, lonely, tired, etc.
But what I learnt from these elephants is that each of these stages are steps that need to be taken to actually achieve something. Each stage, no matter how difficult it seems at the moment, eventually develops the tools and strategies needed later in life. And even if the journey doesn’t seem obviously fruitful, we come back as stronger and more resilient individuals.
But also, this is what differentiates us from elephants and other animals. We humans are meaning makers. My friend told me that giving an experience of hardship a meaningful value is an integral element for developing resiliency. We are bound to experience physical and mental challenges throughout our lives, but what value we add to them and how we interpret them is critical to developing resiliency and strengthening our motivation to carry on. Someone can add harmful value to one challenge and it would result in a downward spiral, but another person can add a positive value to overcoming that challenge. Both are value judgements regardless which contribute to the extent our resiliency strengthens and the amount of motivation we find ourselves with.
Meaning making requires a certain level of emotional awareness and mental capacity. Our state of mind and our emotions contribute heavily to what meaning we give to a certain challenge. Additionally, it contributes to how we react and what action we take. The emotions we feel are complexly layered where some are passive and others active. For example, someone can assign a ‘failure’ in overcoming a challenge with sadness, while another assigns anger. Sadness is a passive emotion where they don’t perform any action immediately to express that. However, anger is active, they can react by venting out frustrations, punching someone, etc. But fear can be both passive and active, it can hinder us from doing anything but also motivate us into immediate action. Identifying these emotions and its consequences requires a lot of mental capacity and attentiveness which can be draining when we are already in the middle of a gruelling self-discovery journey. Sometimes this can mean that a lot of the hurdles we face are neither good nor bad, they are simply meaningless. I’d argue that stripping something of meaning is also a value judgement, something within you made you decide that this isn’t good or bad, it just is.
All this can be a heavy burden on us when we don’t know what to do or where to seek help. Sometimes there are just too many hurdles for us to overcome and it is extremely demotivating because there is no space to reflect and grow between the stages. There is a middle ground where we have the desire for resiliency and motivation, we knew we had it at some point but eventually started losing it little by little. This middle ground is unfortunately the case for many of us, myself included. Hurdles can come in all shapes and sizes, and can be easy or difficult to overcome on a person-to-person basis. There is no one way to overcome a certain type of hurdle. This middle ground is usually the longest and most draining in the entire journey. For some it can last months, others years, and others decades. But this middle ground is just another step towards the goal. It is where our own individual willpower is not enough sometimes, and we need additional support and guidance to push through. This is the time when we develop a truly holistic and well-rounded set of skills to help us make it through the last few hurdles remaining.
Along the way, there will be hidden gems of guidance to support us when necessary. These can be physical in-person contact with family, friends, co-workers, and people. Or materialistic objects like your equipment, food, money, housing, etc. Or even your morals, ethics and your values can be strong supportive structures. These supportive structures work together to varying degrees in supporting us and guiding us through difficult terrains and challenges. What is considered support depends person-to-person and case-to-case. They may present sometimes in intrusive ways that will make us less receptive to the supportive measures, just like the elephants, and end up being more harmful than good. But other times, with space, understanding, and time, we can find ways to use the resources at our disposal in a meaningful way. It often takes us a few years of space and growth to identify when these supportive measures presented themselves and the impact it has had on our lives.
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