The Giant Salamander Dilemma

I often watch nature shows; Nova, Nature, Planet Earth, The Life of Birds, and about a dozen others.  Of course, the best viewing is hosted by David Attenborough, whose voice has become synonymous with nature programming.

The other night I was enjoying a mesmerizing segment on Planet Earth, narrated by Mr. Attenborough. I laughed at a lighthearted story about baby birds and and romping lion cubs when out of nowhere, my friend David turned dark. He started telling a monster story about a bizarre animal that terrified me and at the same time, caused me to pause and reflect on my own life.

The Great Sir Attenborough told of the Giant Salamander of Japan. This monster lives in the icy waters of Japan’s mountains. It hunts by night, eating bugs and crustaceans and fish.  Even on that meager diet, it can grow up to 2 meters in length (that’s more than 6 feet) and can live up to 80 years.

Think about that for a minute.  Eighty Years! This beast does nothing but hang out in freezing water hoping for a pressure change in the water to alert him to a passing fish. Nothing more. That’s his life. He wakes up late in the evening and says goodbye to the Giant Salamander Wife and Kids and makes his way out into the world to do a honest night’s work of grub hunting. And he does that for eight decades. Four-score. 29,219 days. For my Spanish friends, that’s Ochenta! For my Japanese friends that is roughly Hachiju! Any way you count it, it’s old.

1024px-Andrias_japonicus_pairTo put that into perspective, the average life expectancy of an American male is 78.1 years, which means that Mr. Giant Salamander could live longer than me. However, one has to ask the question about quality of life, right? I mean, is Mr. Salamander’s life as fulfilling as my own? After all, my life is full of meaning. Seriously. I wake up in the morning, say goodbye to my wife and kids and trudge to work where I do the job that makes it possible to buy food (grubs) for the table and shelter over our heads (rocks and cold water). I return from work at the end of the day and prepare to do it all over again tomorrow…and I live 1.9 years less than the Giant Salamander of Japan. Crap.

This thought has festered over the past few weeks as I’ve tried to recount my life’s purpose, my ambitions, and goals. Am I really that different from the world’s second largest amphibian? Is there something that distinguishes my much-anticipated and just-shy-of eight decades of life?

In short, what separates us from the Giant Salamander? I’ve known plenty of people who live much like my aquatic, bug eating friend. They move from day-to-day without purpose, without joy, in salamander-like fashion. They live in an icy world, separated from others, scraping to get by; like the Giant Salamander, never a smile on their face. (Have you ever seen a Giant Salamander smile?  I think not.)

How about you? Does your life have meaning beyond the daily grind? What do you do that makes your life meaningful? Is it the work you do? Is it the causes you champion? Is it the hobby you enjoy? The church you attend? The family you raise? What is it that gives your life purpose?

I propose that there are several things that can distinguish us from the Giant Salamander…if we only try.  First, and this is really more of a genetic thing, we have opposable thumbs and breathe air into our lungs rather than absorb it through our skin. But there’s a little more. We have the opportunity, each and every day, to be a part of a greater good. We are offered the gift of living with others, in community. Our ability to love others, and our desire to be loved, gives us purpose, gives us meaning, and ultimately gives us joy. You can have a dozen hobbies and still be alone. You can fight the good fight for a dozen worthy causes but still be empty. I know plenty of people who go to church religiously and are hollow shells and nasty folks.

It isn’t what we do.  It is how we live.  So live your life well. Love those around you. Be lovable. Allow others to love you. Otherwise, we might as well return to our grub hunting.