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Holding Hands with a Chimp

How my suburban-hewn world-view was flipped on its head.

Revelation comes in different forms for different people. A biblical verse. A flash of recognition in a lover’s eyes. A Nietzschean…By Jesse Bering

Revelation comes in different forms for different people. A biblical verse. A flash of recognition in a lover’s eyes. A Nietzschean proverb. A classical sonata. A child’s embrace. Any moment of profundity, really, where time stops and the divine reveals itself, if only for an instant, and the world makes sense.

For me, revelation came in the form of ape knuckles.

When I first met her, Noelle was a 6-month-old chimp who’d just been surrendered to a sanctuary in south Florida, where she was to be raised by human caregivers along with half a dozen other orphans like her until they were old enough to live in a more natural captive environment. As one of those lucky caregivers, I volunteered at the sanctuary between classes and spent nights there on the weekends.

LizBridgesTravel / Shutterstock

Over the next few years, Noelle and I developed, not exactly a daddy-daughter bond, but I suppose something similar to it. One night, as she lay hiccupping on my chest, a belly full of warm formula and drunk with sleepiness, I took her small hairy hand in mine and studied it in detail ... the crescent-shaped lunulae of her nails, the follicles of coarse black hair at the top of her wrist, the so pink palm radiating into five delicate digits with arabesque, FBI-worthy fingerprints at each tip, and then the knuckles.

Holding Noelle’s hand against my own, the similarity was existentially jarring. Of course, I knew of our shared heritage, that her kind and my kind were each other’s “closest living relatives,” and I’d observed stunning displays of her intelligence many times. But it was something about her knuckles, those puffy, creased mini-pavilions sculpted over oceans of phalangeal time, set against the backdrop of my own similarly formed material that clarified for me, resoundingly so, not that Noelle was human-like, but that I was animal-like. Or rather, that I was—that I am—an animal. Unlike the textbooks I’d been reading in my undergraduate anthropology courses, in which human evolution was always presented as a dry, faraway sort of affair that happened long, long ago in some generic savanna filled with bellowing mammoths, flint, and fire, here was a palpable, thunderous display—nay, a sacred relic—of my creatureliness, a profound truth that I could hold and turn over in my hands.

This and similar observations flipped my suburban-hewn worldview on its head.

By making me care less, it made me value my life more.

For a while, even, I struggled to see people as people; like Ionesco and his rhinoceroses, I seemed to be the only one noticing businesspeople and athletes and clerks and professors turning before our very eyes into strangely chattering, adipose-laden, upright apes. It was as if, beneath all the distracting flesh and fashion that led me to assume there’s some special mystery to being human, the sturdy skeleton of evolutionary biology—those inalienable facts of life upon which all of our searching pretense and symbolic posturing is built—came poking through for the first time.

I guess many people would be troubled by their cherished assumptions being threatened by such an experience. Yet, I must say, I found it liberating.

Why? Because if humans really are “just” another type of animal, then like every other animal, I, too, was mortal. I felt it in my bones. This is it. This vanishing life.

And then, somehow, as if the words came bubbling up from the same atavistic vein: Nothing matters. Nothing matters. Nothing matters.

It became my mantra.

The effect was that, by making me care less, it made me value my life more. That’s what the emotion of awe is, really. Stare at an ape’s hands long enough, or up at the sky into a vast universe, and suddenly you feel your existence becoming, paradoxically, both more insignificant and more meaningful. I suppose it’s the beauty of resigning yourself to the truth of an eternity without you, of being a transient but integral bit of an infinite machine.

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Unless you’ve been there yourself, you’ve no idea the balm such a thing can offer to a secretly suicidal soul who, his whole life long, had been laboring under the unlikely premise that he had a soul to begin with. What a burden! Without a soul, there’s no afterlife; without an afterlife, there’s only the theater of the now. Suicide? You’ll be dead soon anyway. Eighty years, even a hundred, is the blink of a cosmic eye. Do your worst, and eventually it will be as though you’d never been here at all. Shame has a way of losing its sting once you realize that its venom is man-made.

Even the immortals will perish. “Michelangelo” and “Shakespeare” may some inconceivable day, perhaps in the cataclysmic wake of an epoch equivalent to the span of time that Noelle and I were one and the same species, fall on ears like the pattering of nonsense syllables.

“You might as well live,” as the satirist Dorothy Parker—in a slightly different context—penned in her popular short poem “Resumé”:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Nothing matters. Time flies. We’re all in this together. Breathe. There’s a spiritual power in nihilism.

There, bathed by the light of a full Miami moon through an open window, Noelle and I lay on a tattered old couch at the sanctuary, two primates, one no less so than the other. I now find the memory scented with jasmine and can hear whippoorwills and the murmur of moth wings against a porch light. It remains among the few times in my life that can, I think, be called a religious experience.


Jesse Bering is the author of Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?, and The Belief Instinct. He is the director of the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

Reprinted with permission from Suicidal. © 2018 by Jesse Bering. Published in the United States by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.

Lead image credit: Sukuman Rittem / Shutterstock

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