The Dolphin Divide

Sounding the Depths of Our Common Consciousness

The Perils of Thanksgiving

Why holiday habits go against the grain.

He may not be able to mark it on the calendar, but my bet is this turkey—a survivor of the seasonal selection process that afflicts his species—will remember Thanksgiving next year.

Between now and then, he won't speak often about the alien abduction theory he may presently be formulating to explain the sudden disappearance of so many of his fellows—discretion being, of course, the better part of valor. But he'll think of it from time to time and when the weather turns cold next year, he may well pack a suitcase and waddle south—very, very far south—for the holiday season. Seem far-fetched? Well, maybe.

But survival is, after all, what memory (even the bird-brained variety) is for. Events imprint themselves on our minds. We remember them. But not all experiences imprint themselves with equal strength, and probably for good reason.

Even if you don't remember the precise meal you ate, you probably recall the location of the last restaurant that gave you food poisoning, or the intersection where you ran a red light and were awarded a written commemorative of the event by a friendly, uniformed representative of the state.

Life provides us with plenty of memorable occasions and, at least from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, some are more worthy of our attention than others. When it comes to vying for a place in the easy-retrieval stacks of consciousness, cautionary memories easily trump recollections of the warmer, fuzzier sort, the sort we expect to be building upon when a holiday rolls around.

Easier said than done. As survivors, we come to be—consciously or not—ever vigilant as we travel through life, and most of us can't just turn down the volume on our instincts at a moment's notice.

That, of course, is a stressful way to live, and it may be part of the reason we humans are so insistent about keeping our holiday traditions alive. Holidays are intended to provide pleasant counterpoints to the usual preoccupations of the mind and may, in fact, afford us a vital psychological respite from survival-related concerns—if we can manage to get into the right mindset.

The word "holiday" comes down to us from the Old English root "hal" meaning "sound, whole, or happy." Perhaps without our hallowed (there's that root again) days, we wouldn't be the well-adjusted, serene, and balanced folk we are today.

But if that's the case, if holidays are really about providing psychic breaks to keep our mental machinery well-oiled and smoothly running, couldn't a slight upending of the cosmic order of things work just as well? Why not let our guard down as a matter of course, then take a day or two off every few months for life's less lustrous concerns?

Financial Planning Freak-Out Day could be a nation-wide annual event. Get all monetary concerns done in a day. Might even prove a real bonding experience. Families could gather around the hearth, chestnuts roasting. Sounds cozy, doesn't it?

Alas, selectively relegating our worries to specific days would likely be no more in our best interests than celebrating life's joys only on designated holidays. We are hard-wired for survival, which means that dangers, challenges, and obstacles register brightly on our inner radar screens—not just now and then, but most of the time. That may account, at least in part, for why it's often so difficult for many of us to truly relax during the holidays we do have. Simply put, we're out of practice.

I remember when I first started training dolphins. For a time, every moment seemed magical. But it wasn't long before I was caught up in the daily workaday concerns the job demanded. There were behaviors to train, deadlines to be met, training challenges to overcome, dolphins in need of veterinary care, reports to be filed.

One day, I sat down on the free-floating dolphin pens of San Diego Bay, perched atop a cooler full of fish, and peered into the water, simply resting. A dolphin glided by just beneath the surface. My eyes followed its movement. It had probably been weeks, or perhaps even months, since I had watched a dolphin swim without any training agenda on my mind. Silent and graceful, the animal undulated and drifted, receded and re-emerged with seemingly effortless ease into and back out of the refracted depths of the water.

It was an Old English root-word moment, and I savored the "holiday" for perhaps twenty minutes. When I walked away, I felt lighter—sound, whole, happy—just like the Old English promised.

We don't necessarily require a calendar-hallowed day to experience a holiday. And, perhaps, with a little practice, we won't find ourselves defaulting to survival mode when they roll around either. Different story, of course, for the turkey.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2011

Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.

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