Jane Goodall, EarthSaint

Introduced by Alan Jones 
EarthLight #38, Summer 2000,  p 22


The Dignity of Jane Goodall 

     “DIGNITY" MAY SEEM a strange word to apply to Jane Goodall. She is certainly not a woman who "stands on her dignity." There's no hint of pomposity which the word can sometimes suggest. She is dignified in an "undignified" sort of way. I'm thinking of the word in its most ancient sense. Dignity means a sense of one's proper self-worth. The mystics of the Middle Ages tell us that a human being has only two tasks. The first is to appreciate his or own inalienable dignity. It is an awesome and holy thing to be alive and to be aware. The second is to grow in gratitude to the origin of that dignity--God. Life is a gift and our natural response is gratitude.

    Jane is, whether she is aware of it or not, an icon of this deep kind of dignity. This dignity was hard-won through years of tough experiences, disappointments and triumphs as a scientist and as a human being. Where does this dignity come from? First, Jane is aware that she is a creature. When I look at the photographs of her with her beloved animals (I'm thinking of a particular photograph of her with a chimp named Freud), when I see her delight in nature and catch the light in her eyes when she is speaking with children and young people, I know that she knows that she is a fellow creature. Being a creature means being aware that you were created. Jane knows that she didn't spring forth spontaneously. She didn't generate herself; she experiences herself as a gift in solidarity with all other creatures. To be a creature is to be aware of an amazing fragility because to be a creature is to be a movement towards death. Every day is, therefore, a gift and every tree and animal a brother and sister. Like St. Francis, Jane has lots of brothers and sisters.

    This sense of truly being a creature leads to the second truth about human dignity--humility. This doesn't mean some form of cloying self-depreciation but an intuition that being a creature means living close to and having a respect for the Earth (humus). So, at the risk of making Jane laugh, I would say that Jane understands herself to be a humble creature and part of an enormous family of beings on this planet. Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist, tells us that there was a time when he had to climb down all the ladders he had made for himself and "accept the little clod of earth" that he was. This acceptance, far from being something dreadful, was found to be liberating. Thomas Merton records a similar experience in a crosswalk in Louisville. He jumped for joy when he realized that he was like everybody else--a human being, a creature in solidarity with all creation.

     There's an old maxim: pursue integrity and identity will follow. This sense of creatureliness and feeling at one with the Earth leads to clarity about who one is as a person. Integrity becomes one's highest value because who one truly is isn't dependent on money, power, prestige, race, or education. Being a humble creature is a noble calling of great dignity. Jane knows who she is and her commitment to self-knowledge gives her an inner authority so that when she speaks people listen, because she acknowledges the Presence in which we all live and move and have our being. When I am with her my heart is enlarged and my sympathies deepened. It is no exaggeration to say that people become more present, more real when Jane is in the room. This means that she is an agent of political and social change in a way which far transcends party-lines. Is this all too much to lay on one human being? In some ways it is. But then, all one has to see is Jane's smile and hear her say something like, "Alan, that's all very nice but it is all nonsense!" But it isn't!

Alan Jones is dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

For more information about Jane Goodall's work to save our primate brothers and sisters, visit www.janegoodall.org.

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