As the bell rang, students began to stand up and leave, instead of waiting for the teacher to finish. The teacher, a bit sore, instructed all of us to stay back. She then proceeded to tell us a story that has stuck with me to this day.
In an experiment, dogs were kept in a closed playground-like environment for a few days. They were allowed to roam and play, and at irregular intervals, a bell would ring. After a few minutes, the dogs were given treats. The dogs would start wiggling their tails when treats were given. The teacher continued the story, saying that after a few days, the dogs began to associate the ringing of the bell with the treats. They would start wiggling their tails in anticipation of the treats, even before they were given.
The teacher then related this story to the students in the class, saying that we should not be like the dogs in the experiment, and should wait for the teacher instead of the bell. She said that humans are different from other animals and should behave accordingly. At the time, I didn’t agree with the teacher. I thought that humans weren’t all that different from other animals. I have since changed my mind.
When someone says something that upsets us, we get angry. When something doesn’t go our way, we feel depressed. When we hear something in the news, we often make a quick judgment about whether we believe it or not, based on our own biases. However, if we take a step back and think about the situation, we can often respond more positively and constructively.
While it is true that we share many instinctual behaviors with other animals, what sets us apart is our capacity for reason and reflection. Many animals feel emotions, but humans have a somewhat unique ability to control their emotions. We can control our reactions and act in deliberate, considered ways. This allows us to create complex societies and live in harmony with one another. This ability gives us control over our lives and destiny that other animals do not have. This ability makes humans unique and sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
We can walk on four legs, but we can also stand on two. We can run on two legs, but we can also fly with none. We are not limited by our legs, but by our minds.
I am not advocating for intelligence, which is often associated with unhappiness. I am not asking you to be more rational or irrational. It is okay to feel happy, excited, anxious, sad, stressed, or depressed. However, if you don’t want to feel any of those emotions, you don’t have to. Feel your emotions fully, but don’t numb yourself to the pain or the joy (or the hate or the love). Be more human. Wiggle your tail only if you want to.
You can change a lot in this world, but only changes that work are within you.