On Wednesday the kids and I were treated by a friend to a trip to the zoo.
We are very blessed where we live in being close to ZSL Whipsnade, which for anyone who hasn’t visited, is a massive and beautiful zoo with all kinds of wild animals.
This was the first time my daughter and son had been to a zoo, and although my boy (aged one and a bit) slept through the first hour, they both really enjoyed the experience.
G who is two and a quarter and a very friendly and affectionate girl, is keen to befriend anything and anyone. Her first request when we saw the ring-tailed lemurs running around at our feet, was “want to cuddle him!”, which she later repeated to the penguins with whom she tried to have a serious conversation. But the highlight for her was seeing the giraffes. G loves giraffes owning various toy ones, and for her to see these creatures in the flesh and up close was very exciting.
For me, aside from the glorious weather, great company and joy on my children’s faces, the highlight was seeing the five or six white rhinos who were really near our side of their massive enclosure. Having never been to Africa, and only seeing rhinos on television, I was amazed by their size and presence which was surprisingly gentle.
They were grazing the grass which I could hear them eat as they got closer, and with the sun on my face, happy, curious and relaxed children playing on the bench whilst watching, I felt so unbelieveably relaxed and blessed.
Isn’t it wonderful that we have such a generous and creative God!
Going to the zoo used to be something I did a lot.
When I was in the first year at Central School of Speech & Drama, as part of our movement component we did eight weeks of zoo studies in Regents Park at London Zoo. It was quite an amazing experience and a far cry from the perception of ‘prancing about pretending to be a tree or an animal’ that sadly many people seem to have about actors.
We would spend an hour or so observing our animal, before returning to the bird display area to put into practice what we had observed. In pairs with one taking notes, the other would completely commit to exploring the space and movement of the animal we were working on.
You had to commit to it, or you would look like a complete wally- a human being ‘pretending’ to be an animal, which would be embarrassing to watch.
But when you did commit to really exploring, letting go of your self-consciousness, there was actually a lot to discover, and anyone watching would have been drawn in.
The days were long and exhausting,often cold and wet, in the fresh air for several hours at a time, heading across town to a church hall for related movement workshops, then back to the zoo for another hour or so. But they were challenging, enlightening, and great fun.
There were many things which doing zoo studies taught me both about acting and about life. Here are just a few:
1: That as an actor, I don’t always need to be ‘performing’ or trying to ‘show’
what was going on to be interesting or engaging,
I can just get on with the task at hand.
When observing the slow loris and meerkats, whether they were sleeping, eating, mating or playing, they were always fascinating and worth spending time with.
They didn’t have a complex that unless they looked ‘super cute or sexy’, I wouldn’t be interested. I didn’t change their value. They were themselves and I could take it or leave it.
2: That to attract attention and be successful, we don’t have to
do something out of character.
A chimpanzee or a monkey may be able to shout really loudly, and if you’ve ever walked through a zoo, you’ll agree that they can be heard from a long way off. But a lizard or a vole can’t compete vocally with a chimp, so what can they offer?
As part of our assessment, we had to pull focus in a mixed group of noisy, quiet and flamboyant animals, so that we could be observed for our five minutes. Therefore we needed to figure out what was focus worthy, and what would make us stand out.
We may not be a noisy or very public person, but to succeed or draw the right people to us, we don’t need to become so . When we are true to ourselves, honouring our sense of integrity, we will progress at the best pace for us and have more longevity.
3: There are a huge variety of shapes, sizes, colours, abilities and sounds of creature, there is not only one animal that every other animal seeks to be like.
It would be crazy if a rhino wanted to stand balanced on one leg and look as pretty as a flamingo, because it would fail miserably. Big, heavy and brownish, with a massive horn on it’s face, delicate it is not, but it could do far more damage to a car in a fight than a flamingo could.
When we look at each animal, we wonder at it’s uniqueness and individual characteristics, and whilst we may enjoy speculating about who would win a fight between different beasts, like ‘crocodile vs hippo’, none of us secretly thinks that the one would be better off if they were the other.
We need to allow our awe and wonder to spill over to recognising and valuing what each person or character offers, whether the obvious star of the show or a seemingly background role.
4: Even when you think you have seen it all, there is always more to discover.
It didn’t matter how many hours I spent standing in front of the slow loris cage, I never got bored, and each time I stood there, I would learn something new.
The same is true of a role.
No matter how many performances you do of a play, if you choose to remain alert and alive, rather than running on autopilot, each night will be different, and each performance you will discover something about how your character thinks/feels/reacts to given circumstances.
Often it will simply be a single moment that is different, but is enough to give you a whole new insight or compassion into the person who’s story you are telling.
I have noticed that the same is with God. It’s not the whole of a conference or good sermon which changes your heart and your life, but a tiny whisper of God’s voice, directly to you in a moment of connection, which transforms your faith and alters the trajectory you are on.
This is equally true of us.
Friendships and marriages will flounder and die when we decide that we
know all there is to know about another person. But if we are prepared to be open to each moment or situation, we may discover more depth to
or insight into them than we had expected, which will
encourage hope and growth.
5: Stop doing and filling and trying. Be.
There is no career path, no stress about how the others see them (other than working at it during mating season), and no having to fill every spare moment with something productive and advancing for an animal. They simply are. As long as they can eat, sleep, play and reproduce, be nurtured with food and shelter and affection – particularly as youngsters- they are content.
God has given us the desire to ask the bigger questions and search for meaning that fills the gap in our spirit. But we do not have to live at a constant level of stress, worrying about the future the present and everthing in between. It is to lead us to Him and to bring us into a true understanding of our identity.
If we are fed, clothed, loved, sheltered and have time to play- to breathe, then in amongst our responsibilities, we can be content too. Cutting ourselves some slack to just be, we can love and be loved by the one who made us and protects us.
“Cease striving, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold. Selah.“
Psalm 46:10-11 NASB
Going back to the zoo on Wednesday, served to remind me of two things.
I realised just how much I missed watching the amazing creatures God has made, the joy it gives to be able to marvel at His creation and how much I can learn from them.
But even more than that, I was reminded of the peace it gives me to be outside, with permission to be still and let my heart fill with awe and wonder.
This life can seem like such a rat race, with everyone having an opinion on what we ‘should’ be doing to keep up and ‘make it count’, but we don’t have to comply with this approach. There is another way, which doesn’t make us lazy or irresponsible, but rather enables us to function more effectively – from a place of peace and rest.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30 NIV