by Richard Gambino
Some things came together for me this winter. The catalyst for it was an unlikely occurrence. One day, my wife and I looked out a window of our home and saw, very nearby, a deer. Nothing unusual. We have deer near our home every day, and some sleep nearby every night. The one we saw was a buck. But he had only one antler — a long, full-grown one. He was close enough for us to see that his other one had somehow been broken off close to his head. Experts assured me that the creature was okay. But, for some time afterward I thought of him, and wondered why he remained in my mind. Then things coalesced in a way that seems at first a weird juxtaposition of unrelated ideas. Bear with me.
For sometime I’ve been reading about recent findings in genetics, with great fasciation. For example, in 1989, a geneticist at Oxford University wrote a study that said genetics points to a wondrous hypothesis. It is that all of us are descended from one single female ancestor of ours, who lived some 200,000 years ago in East Africa — all human beings, now numbering some seven billion, all over the world. He dubbed her “Eve.” Then in 2001, he wrote a book explaining that all today who are Europeans or descended from Europeans are descended from one or another of seven more recent female ancestors, whom he dubbed the “seven daughters of Eve,” the most distant of whom lived about 150,000 years ago, and the most recent about 45,000 year ago. (Keep in mind that the entire population of our human ancestors 150,000 years ago was about only 1,000 to 2,000.)
What’s more, there have been even more amazing results from research in genetics. All humans share ninety-nine percent of our genes. If this sounds remotely abstract, consider that all the major genetic lineages in the human race are found only a bit more than an hour’s drive from Sag Harbor, in Queens. Also, all animals are genetically closely related. For example, humans and chimpanzees have genetic make-ups that are less than one percent different from each other. Now, to be sure, quantity alone does not determine quality — obviously the differences between the two species are great. But what we have in common is also very great, so much so that newspapers reported last December that now some scientists are questioning whether they should continue their long-term practice of performing “inhumane” tests and studies on chimps. And in fact beyond this, genetics shows we humans have a great deal in common with all living beings. Even the two-inch long zebrafish in our home fish tanks share two-thirds of their genes with humans.
Then it started to come to me. This sense of a great, close “family of life” now demonstrated by genetic science is related to my feelings on seeing the deer. To put it another way, what could have been just indifference or at best sympathy with a living creature very different from me, because of my reading the latest scientific ideas about life, had also morphed into empathy. You see, ideas are extremely important. They are far more than just “abstractions” about which we should say, “Who cares.” We perceive everything, that is, we make sense of what our five senses take in of the world, by interpreting, organizing and evaluating everything as ideas. We make further sense by expanding the ideas and relating them to other ideas. And our hearts develop with this, and our emotions form from all this.
Then something else came to me. Namely, for a very long time before modern science, some people had “intuited,” for lack of a better word, what genetics now confirms, the idea that all life is closely related, turning, as said, not only indifference to sympathy, but then also into empathy. And I thought of what Francis of Assisi said: “If you have men who exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion [empathy] and pity [sympathy], you have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” A view, I’m sad to say, my experience with people has confirmed.
You see, in looking at the deer I was doing what Francis did. He saw not just categories, e.g., not just “deer,” but also this individual deer. Not just a man, a woman, a child, but this man, etc., or an American, Chinese, etc, but this individual American or Chinese. Not just Christians, Jews and Muslims, but this individual Christian, etc. Individual distinctions are very important, as seen in what each of us wants, for example, when we see an M.D. We want him or her to see us, each of us, not just as a “case” like other cases, but as an individual person. For me, I want the doctor not just to see the man with a certain medical history, but also to see Richard Gambino and how he has lived and lives with all this history and with all the other distinctions that characterize me. And we get frustrated, annoyed or depressed when a doctor turns us into just another case. Ditto with teachers of our children, and others who relate to us. So, Francis felt intimately related to all living creatures, but paradoxically he treated each one as a unique individual — a double-faceted stance now validated by genetics. All of us have an astronomical number of genes in common, but each of us also has a great number of variations and organizations of genes that makes each of us unique, as does every living creature. So Francis did “crazy,” “childish” things, like, when he was fatally ill and could not walk, apologizing to the donkey, which (Francis might have said “who”) carried him from place to place, for sometimes treating him as “just a donkey.”
I love many of the man-made things on the East End, many of its cultures. But I also love nature here, common with all nature and also uniquely distinctive. So one afternoon this winter, I was in waterproof boots wading through marshland in Barcelona State Park, photographing the great beauty of nature there on that afternoon, the same but also different from all other natural beauty on other afternoons. Then it all completely came together. As Francis showed, feeling at one with a person, an animal, with nature, and also marveling at each’s moment-to-moment uniqueness is called “love.” It sure beats indifference or abstract sympathy in giving meaning and quality to life. Would that I might be more like the “crazy” man of Assisi.