The penguin exhibit from whence I snapped the above photo immediately planted a seed of a story in my head. Notice the penguin on the left? The one facing the rock? That wasn’t just a serendipitous shot where he momentarily faced away from the rest of his penguin friends. He was standing like that for as long as I observed the exhibit and as far as I know, long after I walked away.
We’ll call him George.
That’s Daphne. Here she is again, swimming happily around. Entertaining us onlookers to their tiny little world.
Did you know that there are 17 different species of penguins? Yeah, me neither.
George is a Gentoo penguin, Daphne an Adelie. And while certain species can be found in places like New Zealand, Africa, South America and the Galapagos Islands, George and Daphne originally hail from right where you would expect them to: Antarctica. The South Pole.
Both George and Daphne were born in the wild and experienced all the freedom and danger a life in the wild entails. If given a choice, both would have escaped being captured and shipped off to what equates to a giant fish tank many thousands of miles away from their home. They are both victims of their circumstances, with no chance of life outside captivity.
Both are well fed and cared for. Both have the companionship of other penguins just like them.
It is how they view their circumstances that shapes their lives.
George is angry. With his whole life ahead of him–a mate chosen and dreams of raising a little penguin family–that life was stripped away forever. Where he once had miles of open ocean to swim in and the freedom to dine on fish or krill whenever he chose, he is now trapped in a comparatively small, man-made world and fed on someone else’s schedule. His life is now a paid attraction. Watched by strange creatures whose knuckles tap on the glass that separates their freedom from his captivity, he will not be a willing participant in this sideshow. They may have stripped him of a dignified life of freedom, but his dignity is the one thing they will not take from him. He will not choose a new mate. His mate has been chosen thousands of miles away in a life he’ll never know again. George’s dignity comes at a high price: loneliness.
Daphne is resigned to her life in captivity. It’s not her first preference, but she knows this is the only life she’ll ever know. She realizes there is no escape. She was as stubborn as George when she first arrived in this well appointed prison. But after some time, she’s come to understand that these strange creatures looking at her from the other side of the glass are mesmerized by her. Whereas life in the wild meant she was nothing special–just one of thousands of other penguins like her–here she has an audience. They delight at her as she swims by the glass. Her friendliness affords her special private opportunities where she is fed extra fish and receives gentle strokes by grateful onlookers. She has a mate. Perhaps not one she would have chosen for herself, but a mate nonetheless. Happiness is a relative term, really. She is making the best of this strange place she now calls home.
Which penguin is better off? George the rugged realist or Daphne the fun-loving, adaptable one? I can understand and sympathize with both. George may see Daphne as a fool looking at life through rose-colored glasses, whereas Daphne may view George as a bitter, stubborn grump. Not only does how we perceive our own circumstances affect our outlook on life, but so, too does how we view the perceptions others have.
Ah, but we’re not penguins living in captivity.
We may not always choose our circumstances, but we can choose to change them or make the best of them.
That’s not to say changing them is ever easy or that change doesn’t come without cost and consequence to ourselves and others.
But we do have a choice.