My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 2, #16, October, 1996

Wild Kingdom

My son was telling me recently about the evolution of wildness in animals. I don't recall where he learned it, or what the evidence was, but he said that animals had to learn, over time, that human beings could not be trusted, that they were predators.

It was then I realized that he was not defining wild as "ferocious." No, he was talking about wildness as the opposite of domesticated, that is, having the good sense to be afraid of human beings. Timid rabbits and ducks, by this definition, are as wild as lions and tigers and bears.

And, in that sense, I suspect, many of us are also wild. How many of us humans have reached out to other people, revealed ourselves to them, only to be rejected, ridiculed, wounded? How many of us, living with those scars, construct a series of walls and barriers around ourselves, protecting our fragile sense of self? For how many of us is intimacy arrived at only after cautiously letting someone else through just one locked door at a time?

As a cat lover, I am a skilled seducer of wild things. When I see a cat, I call out to it. Then I sit down and wait. I beckon to it, and call to it. And I wait. I offer it the assurance of stillness. The cat will approach slowly, sniffing the air. It comes just outside of human reach and stares at me, whiskers quivering. I croon at it, and gently extend my fingers. It comes just a little closer, and sniffs my fingers, and I slowly reach over and scritch its ears (I know all the secret places cats love to have touched). A slow rumbling noise starts coming from its throat and it comes just a little closer, so I can pet its back. When it's really convinced that I am safe, it may roll over on her back and let me stroke its belly. It might even crawl up into my lap.

I think we go through the same sort of ritualistic dance when we approach a shy, self-protective human. We have to begin by making the offer, the human equivalent of "Here, kit,kit,kit." We need to say, whether by words or actions or tone of voice, "I like you."

But if we reach out and grab too quickly, the cat and human will both run away, suspecting our motives. We need to move slowly, building confidence. We may start by sharing our own vulnerable places, and waiting. Then we may ask our timid, hoped-for friend, a question or two about his (or her) own experiences. And then we wait some more--for our new friend to realize that his confidences are safe. We tame our wild creature and turn him into a friend.

I think maybe a lot of us out on the internet are wild creatures. I don't mean just the computer people, notoriously stereotyped as geeks and dweebs, though these may be the people most wounded by a society that profoundly mistrusts intelligence. (And I think it is true that computers appeal at a very basic level to shy people--computers, after all, can be mastered, and made to do your bidding. They offer rich imaginative possibilities, for people to create art and film and games. They offer a world that is orderly, structured, controlled, in a way that a real world full of people can never be.)

But even for us non-computer types, who can just barely master point-and-click, the net offers a wider world than the little town, or school or college or workplace we are stranded in, a world in which there just might be someone a little more like us. The internet, in many ways, is an ideal vehicle for timid people to reach out, to look for other timid people to share their world with.

All of us, however shy we may be, have talents we are sure of, and willing to expose to the world--I, for instance, have always gotten a positive reaction to being "cute and funny," so this is the first part of myself I will offer unknown people. We can put that small, relatively safe aspect of ourselves out there on the net for people to view--perhaps a web page about our special enthusiasms, perhaps a game we created, perhaps a project we want to enlist other people in. Then we can wait for people to respond to us. Should we begin to trust the people who write us, we can slowly reveal more of our secret places

There are risks involved, even here. There are rude and tacky people on the web, who attack and flame. But if we are rejected, it is an impersonal rejection, not a rejection by people who know us, who share physical space with us--we don't even know where the people who respond to us are. These are small risks. We keep our secret places, our fragileness, hidden, safe; we reveal them only when we have built up trust.

You know, the original name for my web site Best Information on the Net was Where the Wild Things Are -- the place where all the best information is linked. But the internet itself may be a kind of wild life refuge, for timid creatures longing to be tamed. If the net can bring these shy, uncertain creatures friendship, this may be the finest single service it performs. Information is great to have, but it never got anybody through the long dark nights.

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