By Margaret M. Treadwell
My summer begins in early June when the dolphins are back playing in the ocean off Cape Henlopen, knowing better how to play than any human being I ever met. Webster’s Dictionary defines play as moving lightly; “to frisk; to flutter; as, sunlight plays on the waves; to have fun; to engage in recreation.” To my mind, dolphins are the embodiment of playfulness.
I thought about them during recent readings from Forward Day by Day which focus on “kingdom moments,” those often undervalued times when we experience God’s love, loving relationships with others and self acceptance. Without trying too hard, we almost unconsciously are living the Great Commandment: to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.
I usually draw inspiration from the dolphins on early morning beach walks, when they are playfully maneuvering through the waters to find their breakfasts. But the most remarkable “kingdom moment” I experienced with them occurred on a late afternoon after I had a quarrel with our vacationing family. Deciding the best course of action was to temporarily separate myself from the argument, I left the scene to paddle a friend’s single kayak out into Delaware Bay.
About a mile offshore, I heard what I thought was laughter. Then to my astonishment, three dolphins began to play hide-and-seek under, around and beside my small craft as if I were part of the game. For a few minutes I was afraid of capsizing, but I quickly realized that these beautiful mammals were in control of their play, had no intention of harming me and, indeed, were treating me as if I were one of them. I sat very still, allowing myself to relax into their fun while imagining that I could see through their eyes. It was a moment of awe, pure delight and a sense of oneness with the natural world.
When they moved on, I was so eager to tell my story that I forgot my anger and headed back to join my family. Maybe it was because the dolphins accepted me that I could accept and respect the differences in each of us that night. They cast their spell on our evening barbeque, which, simple as it was, stands out as the best of our times together that vacation – in retrospect, another kingdom moment.
Dolphins teach us how to be creatures of God’s Great Commandment. Over the years, I have grappled with the meaning of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. One client who described herself as “stuck” asked, “Am I supposed to love myself and my neighbor or just love my neighbor, not myself?” We talked about how if we give and give ourselves away, there is no self left for giving. Conversely, opening ourselves to experience joy and blessings in God’s creation is an important way to love God and ourselves. A self is more lovable (and therefore able to love) than a no self.
Dolphins, with their basic anatomy unchanged for 5 million years and the most well-developed brains of all animals on earth, take good care of themselves while living in communities called pods. Their two eyeballs move independently so that they can close one eye to rest while the other looks ahead and behind to watch for predators. They communicate with each other through a set of sounds – whistles, clicks and chirps when they separate, bubble streams and silence when swimming together – often 50 miles a day. Each sound has about 20 different frequencies, all meaning something different. Is there any wonder this sounds like laughter to a mere mortal?
Their care for each other is expressed in a range of emotion shown in gestures, postures and touch, through which they make friends, flirt, tap each other with their pectoral fins in a show of affection, kiss, make love in the blink of an eye, fight, play and in captivity seem to confer in order to synchronize their dance. Instinctively, dolphins have a large repertoire of ways to stay healthily connected and to know what’s best for their community.
For example, when they find a bait ball (a swarm of small fish) to eat, they refrain from all attacking the bait, which would mean not enough for all. Rather, they swim individually, taking turns to consume exactly how much each needs. Their behavior reminds us that man is not the center of the universe, and The Family of Man neglects all creatures great and small at our peril.
How will you move lightly, play, have fun and re-create with God, your neighbor and yourself this summer?
Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.