Else Poulsen met Barle in 2002 when a home was made for her at the Detroit Zoo. The polar bear was finally safe after thirteen grueling years during which she’d been forced to perform tricks in a Mexican circus. Poulsen, a bear behavior expert, was at the zoo to help Barle (Bare-luh) adjust to her new life.
Despite the atrocious treatment Barle had suffered, Poulsen found her surprisingly docile. Barle did not make threatening sounds or throw herself against the sides of the cage when Poulsen came near. Still, time and patience were needed to win the bear’s trust. In her early visits, Poulsen would do what bear etiquette demanded: she would sidle up to the cage and just hang there, just wait for a sign from Barle. She also offered Barle grapes. Few creatures, she said, can resist grapes.
I don’t know about you, but too often my memory’s a bear—and it’s not docile like Barle. My memory growls and sometimes roars, and sometimes when I get too close it swats me with a big, furry claw. My bear’s cage is a repository for regret.
I am very lucky to have made many happy memories, but like most people I have a ‘negativity bias’—I’m more alert to negative stimuli than to positive. That bias makes perfect sense as an evolutionary adaptation because for early humans danger was everywhere. (What a pretty mushroom. Yum … ) For me, the negativity bias means that the paw of memory brings a whack more often than a caress. Sudden recollections of times I have been stupid or selfish or unkind or all three at once can send me reeling.
Like most people, I have learned that simply trying to forget errors in judgment doesn’t work. For one thing, repression rarely lasts forever, unlike some dental appointments. For another, memories can be richly instructive. That’s why, when bad memories take a swipe at us, it seems wise to take a page from the Buddhist handbook, to remind ourselves that the experience is gone and so is the self that had the experience. As a wise man once asked, Why blame yourself because in the darkness you could not see? We just have to make sure the light bulb clicks on and stays on. And since we are remade in every moment, why not use that energy to become kinder to others and to ourselves?
Like Barle, memory is a kind of wild animal. We may feel a kinship with it, but we should never assume we fully understand it. It is best to sidle up to regret with a tender compassion. And, of course, with grapes.
If you are going to wrestle a bear, try to stay away from all fish oil products, you know. I mean it’s tough for me, because I love to rub myself with salmon oil every day – it’s a great conditioner for the hair, skin. Will Ferrell