How smart is nature? Is life communicating to you everything you need to know? Are all living things connected by a network of grace? If you have any doubts, consider this account received via the Internet:

From the chaos of the Tsunami disaster comes an incredible tale from Jim France of the Pavilion Hotel Group in Bangkok: At a resort on Phuket, one of the most popular attractions was the elephant ride. As many as eight people would sit atop one elephant, who would escort the tourists into the surrounding forest, down to the beach, to lunch at a fresh water lagoon, and then back to the hotel. A team of nine elephants was kept chained to in-ground posts, not because they were dangerous, but because it made tourist mothers feel safer when their children fed the huge animals.

Twenty minutes before the first wave hit, the elephants became extremely agitated and unruly. Four had just returned from a tour and their handlers had not yet chained them. Suddenly the four helped their five peers tear free from their chains. Then they all climbed a hill and began to bellow; many people followed them up the hill. Then the waves began to crash. After the tsunami subsided, the elephants charged down from the hill and began to pick up children with their trunks. Once the kids were in place, the elephants ran them back up the hill to safety. When all the children were taken care of, they started helping the adults.

The elephants rescued 42 people. Not until the task was done would they allow their handlers to mount them. Then, with handlers atop, they began moving wreckage.

While we tend to regard nature as brutal and impersonal, it is filled with compassion. God has imbued every one of us, from the ant to the whale — humans included — with the capacity to know exactly what to do to help. If people or animals seem cold or unkind, it is not because we were created that way. It is because we have learned habits to the contrary from predecessors sullied by fear.

Several years ago at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago a three-year-old boy climbed a retaining wall and fell 17 feet onto the concrete floor of the gorilla pavilion. The child hit his head and fell unconscious in the midst of a group of gorillas. The boy’s mother went hysterical, onlookers were horrified, and several people ran to summon zoo officials. Before anyone could get to the boy, a gorilla named Binti Jua, with her own infant on her back, brushed away the other gorillas and took the unconscious child in her arms. As the crowd watched astonished, she tenderly carried the child to the door of the gorilla cage and handed him to an attendant. Later that year Time Magazine designated Binti Jua as the recipient of the Humanitarian of the Year award.

While these incidents seem astonishing, they are far closer to our nature than the cold-hearted manner to which many of us have become accustomed to living. Love is natural and bitterness is learned. Yet what was learned can be unlearned, and the truth of our inherent kindness reveals itself when we most need it.

I caught an episode of a short-lived TV show, a sort of kindness-based candid camera. The show set up actors in seeming distress and watched to see who would help them and how. In one stunt, an anxious young man approached people in a supermarket and asked them for help to choose food for a dinner he was preparing for his girlfriend. He claimed that he was going to propose to her and he didn’t know how to cook. While some people shunned the fellow, three college guys took a liking to him and spent a great deal of time walking him around the supermarket trying to help him. Even more poignant, the stunt was done in Texas, the fellow needing help was black, and the college guys were white. Very cool, I thought — a powerful reversal of stereotypes and negative expectations.

After all the stunts, the show picked the best helpers and rewarded them on camera with $5,000 cash. None of the helpers was willing to accept the money. They all said that they wanted to help just because it felt good, and that was enough reward. Thank God some people have at least attained the evolutionary degree of a gorilla!

Kindness and service bring us rewards far deeper than mean-spiritedness and alienation, for they offer expression to our nature as spiritual beings. Most people are good at heart and want to get along. The media focuses so much attention on the murderers and perverts that we come to believe they comprise a majority of the population. It is not so. As one philosopher asked, “What are we here for if not to make life easier for each other?”

Yes, life brings tsunamis. And yes, it also brings elephants to lift us to higher ground.

By Alan Cohen


  • Alan Cohen is the author of many popular inspirational books, including the best-selling Why Your Life Sucks and What You Can Do About It, the award-winning A Deep Breath of Life and his newest is the prosperity guide Relax into Wealth.

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