The first time I saw an Arctic tern, I was in the open ocean off the coast of northern California. The bird was following our boat, awaiting in mid-air, for batches of chum tossed off the back of the vessel. The bird was tiny, virgin white, and wielded scythe-like wings that cut through the mighty sea winds.
At the time, I was in my mid-thirties–about to launch my career as a psychologist. I don’t know how old the tern was at the time, but a tern’s life is over after thirty years, give or take. By the time that tern I saw approached its thirtieth birthday, it would have circled the earth many times over.
My new beginning as a psychologist came after several false starts in career, a fair bit of wandering and exploring, and tons of book learnin’ and socialization. I suspect that my presence on that boat, to watch birds, breathe the sea air, and feel a kinship with primordial mother ocean, was a way of reconnecting with my animalistic nature. Humans need education and socialization, of course. But it has struck me that there is an inherent tension between the power of our training and the force of our instincts.
I was on that boat to find a better balance between mind and drive. How ironic that I’d be so interested in reconnecting with my creatureliness after all my efforts to transcend it through higher education! The rest of the natural world is not equipped with so much insulation from nature “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson, 1850, Canto 56). Terns brave sea, land, and air throughout the course of their lives–in some of the harshest conditions to boot. They are equipped with little more than their slight, angular stature and their instincts. Migration takes them to distant locations that serve their needs for food and ideal breeding conditions. They sign no social contract; they simply respond to an overwhelming instinctual restlessness called Zugunruhe.
I wrote Dreams of Zugunruhe, a story about a young tern awaiting the arrival of this migratory restlessness because my instincts were not treated with the same respect in my youth. And I don’t believe that I’m the exception, I believe I’m the rule. The better we as humans get at surviving, whether through improved healthcare, technological advancement, and stockpiling basic necessities, the worse we seem to get at living.
As an expert on human attachment, I know that people need safe havens to thrive. We need care, support, food, clothing, and shelter. But I also know that we work hard to meet these needs so we can live a little bit like Arctic terns. Societies are secure bases from which we leap into the unknown, trust our instincts to take us somewhere interesting and to overcome unexpected challenges.
Dreams of Zugunruhe is a book I hope all families will own. It reminds both parents and children that no matter how much you learn, how successful you become, and how much discipline you acquire, you’ll never outgrow your inner wildness and lust for adventure. It’s as important a reminder for kids going to their first day at preschool as it is for a college graduate and a 90-year-old woman who has just lost her husband of 60 years. The quote famously attributed to George Eliot reminds us that “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Dreams of Zugunruhe carries the message that it’s always time to live and feel as you were born to do.
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Twitter: @mindsplain & @DreamsZugunruhe