We recently concluded a group study of the Brian Jones book, Getting Rid of the Gorilla. It’s all about the struggle to forgive the hurt caused by others. And I highly recommend it.
I have always been fascinated by gorillas. The first animal that caught my eye when I was a child was the rhinoceros; I must have thought its thick skin was the kind of protection I needed from the pain and hurt done to me. But an easy second choice in my childish estimation was the gorilla. He was large, awesomely powerful, and testy, so no one wanted to mess with him. [If you don’t have skin thick enough to protect you, you might as well try an appearance and demeanor that repels enemies, right?]
And so it will come as no surprise to you that when I was teaching high school (and lifting weights after school) I was quite pleased when a number of persons began to refer to me as “Gorilla Arms” (with an emphasis on the first syllable of the word “gorilla”). One of my friends (Ken, who collected gorilla figurines – he had an office full of them) had muscle shirts, i.e. white “wife beaters,” made up for us that featured a black gorilla on the front.
It was like a childhood dream-come-true for me, even though I did not completely make the connection at the time. All I knew was that I liked it. A lot.
The trouble with gorillas (as Brian Jones points out) is that they will eat you out of emotional house and home. The gorilla of unforgiveness is insatiable. [Don’t let the metaphor diminish the importance of the truth here.] If you let a gorilla live in the house of your heart . . . you will not have a zoo; you will have a cemetery with one grave in it.
I could never acquire the thick skin of the rhinoceros to help me with my pain. But I thought the muscles I developed in the gym might just do the trick. If I could just become like a gorilla then I would be impervious to pain, right?
I will never forget working alongside a man in Arizona in the summer of 1972; he worked for Tucson School District Number One. He was a laborer. This man was large, tough as nails, strong as an ox, and as filthy-mouthed as any proverbial “sailor” you have ever encountered. He terrified me. Yet he seemed to have the quality I sought: he was larger than any pain that could inflicted on him.
And then one day someone happened to mention his son . . . who had gone to Vietnam . . . and returned in a body bag. And then I watched this giant of a man cry like a baby as he remembered his little boy.
No one is impervious to pain.
No one can gain a thick enough skin to avoid hurt in this life without losing the ability to feel altogether.
And no one can become strong enough, gorilla-like enough to be impervious to the hurt that will surely be inflicted by others in this life.
In truth, acquiring the emotional skin of a rhino, or the strength of a gorilla will exact a price of its own: it will take your life.
Learning to forgive is not tantamount to surrendering your life; in fact, quite the opposite is true. It will breathe life back into you.
Dian Fossey helped us to understand the actions and subtleties of the mountain gorilla. But we would do well to learn about the consequences of giving a home to the emotional gorilla of unforgiveness.