The Definitive Experience

On certain rare and startling occasions, a person finds that her character is unexpectedly put to the test.  I term these unexpected crises “definitive experiences”.  In the midst of shock and chaos, a person comes to discover certain truths about herself, her values, and her gut instincts.  I believe that the “definitive experience”, as I define it, provides valuable insight into one’s character specifically because it is so sudden and startling that one’s reaction to it is purely instinctual.  Ethical concerns and the effects of one’s choices cannot be thoroughly weighed in such situations.  Thus, the crisis reaction exposes much about a person’s character and true nature which cannot be revealed in the day-to-day, premeditated decisions and choices that one makes. 

I’ve often pondered the lack of definitive experiences in my recent life.  For instance, while watching the first seasons of Lost, I found myself wondering whether I would behave more like the heroic Jack or the opportunistic Sawyer in a plane wreck situation.  I routinely ponder these thoughts anytime I’m viewing or reading about extreme experiences of any sort.  Like most people living in today’s cushy world, I don’t often have the opportunity to truly test my mettle, and to come to terms with my own strength of character, or lack thereof. 

These insights developed after a startling experience I had last weekend.  No, I did not suddenly find myself stranded on a deserted island, faced with the dilemma of rescuing injured survivors or hoarding their luggage.  My experience was far less dramatic than this, and yet it still revealed many valuable insights.

Memorial Day weekend found me camping on private land with my family and boyfriend.  We were in the process of setting up camp in the woods when I discovered a baby raccoon lying in the leaf litter a short distance from our pile of firewood.  Approaching the animal, I discovered that it was moving slowly and jerkily across the forest floor.  It appeared to be very weak and possibly injured, and its small body was covered with buzzing flies.  Its fur was thickly caked with fly eggs.  (I do apologize for the graphic nature of this description, but in exploring the event as a true definitive experience, it’s necessary that one understands how unpleasant a picture this truly was.  The story will continue along these lines, so it’s suggested that the squeamish stop reading now, before your stomachs are upset.)

My immediate reaction was to approach the baby raccoon, to attempt to help it.  This did not surprise me, for it seems I often encounter injured animals and move to rescue them.  My family members, however, acted as very vocal naysayers for the most part.  Only my brother understood my desire to help the animal.  I was urged to leave it alone, as it writhed about just feet from the site of our bonfire.  I was also repeatedly told that it would bite me.  I somehow knew that it would not, or could not.  It was too small, too weak, and too young.  Easily, I scooped it up with a towel and rushed off with it, to the protests of the majority of my family members and the horror of my boyfriend.

I suppose it should be said that parasites of any kind disgust me.  I am greatly disturbed by their very existence, and possess a somewhat irrational fear of them.  The sight of so many fly eggs encrusting the body of this tiny raccoon was therefore a horrific sight for me.  Nonetheless, without even bothering to set up camp, I headed back through the woods to the house.  I then began the process of attempting to rid the baby raccoon of her infestation.  Encouraged by her churring vocalizations, I kept working, with whatever materials I could find.  Repeatedly, family members approached me and urged me to stop what I was doing and come back to the party.  On several occasions, I was advised to abandon or euthanize the animal.  Looking at the baby raccoon wrapped in a blanket before me, euthanasia simply was not an option.  Fly eggs had filled one of her eye sockets, and both of her ears.  Quite possibly, I was fighting a losing battle.  Yet it seemed somehow ignoble just to give up because the animal’s suffering presented me with an inconvenience.  In fact, I was surprised that the others around me didn’t share my interest in attempting a rescue.  Doggedly, I continued trying to remove the parasites, focusing for a time on her affected eye.  I was surprised to discover a berry- black, healthy little eye beneath its layer of fly eggs, and I felt encouraged by her churring vocalizations and the sight of her bright gaze upon me.  It seemed to me that my focus somehow intensified and deepened, to the point where I was concerned only with the well- being of the animal.  All other concerns, even for the social enjoyment of the holiday, faded away.  Looking back, this surprises me.  I would not have expected that I could become so single- mindedly intense.

It was then that I discovered an awful fact: some of the maggots had hatched and were moving.  Wriggling horrifically in the baby raccoon’s ear canal were live maggots, as thin as threads.  Using tweezers and Q tips, I struggled in vain to remove them from the cavity.  Finally, I realized that I could not succeed.  I couldn’t get at some of the maggots, and they were pushing deeper into her ear canal.  Swallowing my pride, I realized I had to admit defeat.  I accessed the computer in the next room, and found a listing of wildlife rehabilitators in the area.  After speaking with a few of them, I found one who was willing to take in the baby raccoon.  She lived 45 minutes away.

My boyfriend drove my car, as I held the baby raccoon in its cage during the long drive.  As we reached her house, the wildlife rehabilitator headed toward us and took the animal in her arms.  Bringing her into her dining room, she immediately began working on her infestation.  I was very surprised to discover that the baby raccoon had no wounds of any kind.  The fly eggs were merely caked upon her fur, where they resembled a thick layer of sawdust.  Deftly, the rehabilitator stripped the eggs away with a fine toothed comb dipped in Murphy’s oil soap.  She used a saline solution in the raccoon’s ears, explaining that it caused the maggots to retreat out the ear cavity, where they could be collected with tweezers.  She placed the small animal on a heating pad and worked diligently, with a focus that rivaled my own, and a skill which clearly surpassed my clumsy, bungling efforts.  Here was a true master at work, and I observed her with rapt attention.  What a useful skill she had, the ability to save lives, and what an entirely selfless cause she had devoted herself to!  I admired this woman, and her devotion to the rescue and care of wild animals.  I wondered how I could learn to be more like her.  I watched as she administered antibiotics and a bit of Nutri Cal to her new patient.  Once she was certain that the maggots had been evicted from the baby animal’s body, she told me she would begin tube feeding her.  The little raccoon had clearly been abandoned for some time.  She was thin and weak, and her eyes, though bright, were sunken due to lack of nourishment.  The good thing was that she’d likely had all the fly eggs removed just as they’d begun to hatch.  Once they’re laid, the wildlife rehabilitator told me, they hatch within a matter of hours.

Returning to our campsite that evening, I felt pretty pleased with what we had done.  With luck, the baby raccoon would survive the experience, and I would have helped in saving her life, though I was now only responsible for a small part of the rescue effort.  I was relieved to have acknowledged that the situation was beyond the reach of my amateur abilities.  I hadn’t persisted in my own efforts out of pride, as I had done in the past.  After observing a true master at work, I was grateful for my humility.

Putting the experience behind us, we very thoroughly washed our hands and arms, and quickly prepared a dinner of veggie dogs with hummus and some fruit salad.  Afterwards, we enjoyed a family drum circle, like the woodland hippies we are.  Off in the distance all the while, I could hear a strong, monkey-like cry, which was very reminiscent of the cry that the baby raccoon had made when I wiped her head with a damp washcloth.  I realized there was another baby raccoon in the woods, not far from us.  I found myself wondering if it was tucked safely inside its nest, and if so, why was it wailing all through the night?

At around 1 am, I decided to return to my tent for a stick of the large outdoor incense I’d been burning.  With the incense in hand, I paused at the door to my tent, aware that the shrill, monkey- like shrieking seemed to be coming from very close by.  What if there was another baby raccoon out there dying, its body being consumed alive by maggots?  I had to make sure that this was not the case, because the alternative would fill me with horror and guilt in the morning.  After all, I reminded myself, fly eggs hatch in a matter of hours.  With my flashlight in hand, I turned and headed into the woods, following the sound of the shrieking animal.

It wasn’t long before I found it, another baby raccoon, in a similar condition to the first.  I wrapped it in a nylon bag and rushed back to the house.  I saw that the fly eggs were beginning to hatch on this unfortunate orphan.  However, it appeared as though his infestation was less severe.  Nonetheless, it would take a lot of work. 

I began the endeavor feeling fully energized and confident of my abilities.  I could do it, I thought eagerly.  I’d just seen how it was done!  Now, all I need are supplies, I thought, my mind racing.  I rushed around the house in search of substitutes for fine toothed combs, Murphy’s oil soap, saline solution, and heating pads.  Assembling these items around my new charge, I threw myself into the rescue effort.  However, it wasn’t long before I grew frustrated.  My makeshift supplies simply weren’t working as well as the rehabilitator’s.  Maggots were everywhere.  I found myself washing my hands constantly out of fear and revulsion.  What if they ate into this baby raccoon’s ears, I thought frantically?  They hatch in a matter of hours.  They hatch in a matter of hours!  As I struggled to control the infestation, the wildlife rehabilitator’s words echoed in my mind like a taunting refrain.  How many hours had it been since I discovered the first raccoon?  How many hours had this one lain like that, unattended, uncared for?  How many hours?  It was all a matter of hours.  The hours were all that mattered.  How many hours?  How many?

As anxiety overwhelmed me, I turned to my boyfriend, who was still standing firmly by my side, through all of my animal- rescue mania.  It was then that his own strength in the face of crisis became finally apparent to me.  No, he wasn’t the action man, leaping into the fray with tweezers and syringes of saline on the ready.  In truth, there didn’t need to be two of us frantically attending the baby raccoon.  His role in this crisis was to provide calm and patient support through my frenzy of activity.  Like yin and yang, our dynamic balanced itself.

Yet the baby raccoon’s condition was not abating.  My tools were simply not as effective as the rehabilitator’s had been, and we were a long way from the nearest 24 hour superstore… nearly as far as we were from the rehabilitator herself.  Hesitantly, I picked up the phone.  It was after 1 am… Slowly, I dialed her number. 

Much to my surprise, she was still awake and working on the first raccoon.  She invited me back over, and so my boyfriend and I hopped back in the car with our second orphaned baby and sped down the roads as quickly as we could.

Down one rural stretch of road, we came upon a large adult raccoon standing in the center of our lane.  In my exhausted state, I hit the accelerator instead of the brake, and we found ourselves racing toward the animal before I’d realized what happened.  We jolted forward, and then I slammed on the brake.  We lurched to a stop.  The raccoon simply stood there, entranced by our headlights, and regarded us for a long moment before slowly moving off.  The whole encounter felt very strange, like an omen of sorts.  I found myself wondering if I had passed the test Raccoon had set for me. 

Reaching the rehabilitator’s yet again, we watched as she tirelessly began a similar procedure for our second baby raccoon.  She seemed to feel that this one would fare better than the first, because he was larger and stronger.  We left that night feeling utterly exhausted and confused by the events of the long day, and the longer night, as well as greatly in need of a very long shower.

All through the following week, I found that I couldn’t shake the experience from my mind.  Did it have some sort of meaning, I found myself wondering?  Or was I merely being superstitious?  If I was living in a shamanic culture today, I would likely now believe that I possessed Raccoon Medicine.  I would feel that Raccoon had sought me out to offer its guidance after posing its series of tests.  Could that be the case even in today’s modern world? 

Ignoring for the moment the possible esoteric shades of the experience, and assuming that nothing has meaning at all unless we grant it, what deeper significance could I impart to this course of events?  Clearly, it taught me much about myself, my gut instincts, and my attitude in a crisis.  I also learned much about my relationship with my boyfriend through the ordeal we shared.  Furthermore, I learned that a person with natural inclinations such as mine ought to develop some degree of veterinary skill so as to avoid anxiety and the panic of inexperience.  I now feel proud of my actions, and the feelings behind them, but I can’t deny that I lack skill.  I therefore found myself inquiring about wildlife rehabilitation classes and volunteer work with our local park system.  In the interest of someday becoming exactly who I want to be, I think this would be an excellent idea. 

I feel that “definitive experiences” such as these can show us who we want to be, and what truly matters to each of us.  Without such shocking stimuli to spur us into action, many of us drift through life apathetically, never discovering a cause to devote ourselves to.  With last weekend’s events behind me, I find that my former apathy has dissolved, to be replaced by a new sense of ambition to become my ideal self.  This ideal self is someone strong and compassionate, someone whose determination and resolve truly matter, at least in the eyes of two baby raccoons.

Soahki  is a contributing writer for Get instant updates for this blog via Twitter: PGTblog.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Definitive Experience

  1. “If I was living in a shamanic culture today, I would likely now believe that I possessed Raccoon Medicine. I would feel that Raccoon had sought me out to offer its guidance after posing its series of tests.”

    These thoughts are very similar to my first thoughts after reading the experience. I regard any heightened and personal experience with another living creature as potential transmissions, lessons, bonding.

    And I think your aversion to parasites is more than warranted. We have ages of evolutionary conditioning that tell us “bad news, get away.”

    I feel that definitive experiences are less about the “objective” intensity and/or novelty or even the event itself; it is more about how the individual regards and processes the experience.

    A coworker of mine had a brain tumor at a young age. Her death was expected, but she survived, increasing her life span over 100% of what was expected. She didn’t hide this experience, but she disliked talking about it. To her, everyone else focused on the experience and projected that it must have been “life changing.” In her mind, it wasn’t. She explained that she was young and didn’t completely grasp what was happening. She remembers other experiences more vividly and believes that those contributed more to her development as a person than her struggle against cancer.

    This was a good morning read, thank you.

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