Isn’t it funny that lions and antelopes both run at 50 miles an hour?
I remember visiting Tanzania when I was eight years old. That trip is likely a core memory of mine because I remember every single joyous, enthralling second we spent driving around the Serengeti in that old Jeep. It’s so strange how distant memories reappear when you get older.
Only a few days into the trip, my mother and I watched two lions rip the bloody flesh off the carcass of a wildebeest and lick their lips in satisfaction. Surprisingly, at eight years of age, I wasn’t upset by it. The circle of life, they call it. The wildebeest probably fell too far behind the rest of the herd. It’s survival of the fittest out there. I remember leaning against the Jeep’s window, captivated, thinking, A lion’s gotta eat too.
Yeah. The lion’s gotta eat, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair. The lion’s gotta eat, but what about me? The lion’s gotta eat, but do we all really have to fight for our lives like this?
The difference between me and everyone else is the same as a wildebeest outrunning the members of its herd when a lion comes to feast. When you’re competing against the herd for who gets eaten, who’s the real enemy here? Who are we really fighting?
The Serengeti Blue Wildebeest is a constantly migrating species. A year-round “Great Migration.” With no time to stop, they’re perpetually nomadic as they towards food abundance, towards the water, away from predators, away from harm. They operate under swarm intelligence, where the herd systematically explores and overcomes as one. But the “swarm” doesn’t apply if you run too far forward or fall too far back. There’s no “together” if a crocodile clamps down on your leg as the herd crosses a river and doesn’t let go. There is no overcoming here. There is just abandonment. There is just leaving you behind. There is just rejection.
But they can’t blame each other. Wildebeests try their best to act for the welfare of the herd. Protecting the injured by situating them in the middle of the herd, surrounding the elderly with larger herd members. Taking the night shift, standing guard while the others sleep, preparing to be alert at signs of danger. We listen to the warning cries of others: when the zebras from a neighboring field alert the emergence of a wild dog pack, when giraffes graze calmly, assuring there’s no danger nearby.
The difference between the lion and the herd is a line that separates poverty and prosperity, failure and security, playing the game or being the game. The lions hunt for game and the herd plays the game and some win and some lose, and I think we call that balance.
The “difference” is that the lions play the game to win and the wildebeests play the game to survive.
The “difference” between the unintentionally competing individuals in the herd is who’s faster, who’s stronger, who’s smarter, who’s willing to sabotage, who’s willing to sacrifice, and who’s willing to leave a man behind. And the answer is so obvious— and the desperation we have is so dire.
I wonder if wildebeests live with their hair perpetually standing on end. Because the false sense of security between games is a lie, and the wildebeests grazing the farthest from the lion pride are automatically guaranteed a better chance at survival. Do we call that luck? Random chance? Do we call that privilege? Wildebeest-style capitalism?
Think about being a human under those circumstances. Makes everyone look like jerks, and makes the system look like the biggest jerk, but hey, isn’t that just the way it is? A lion’s gotta eat. And in reality, it doesn’t matter if it’s not fair, because it’s the only way we’ve got. Circle of life, remember?
And so I present to you: the college process.
It’s not remotely creative, talking in symbolic metaphors about it all, but it makes me feel a bit smarter. Smart enough to stay with the herd at least. Maybe. And since all the applications are done, there's nothing left to do but wait. Graze in the grass. Amble down to the river. Drink. Gather. Keep moving. Follow the abundance. Stay in the wetlands for a season, maybe.
The Great Migration?
Yeah, whatever you want to call it. Whatever you want to call us.
Us and wildebeests.
[Image via Smithsonian's National Zoo]