The Power of Words

Why Wolves Aren’t “Packs” — and Neither Are We

A few years ago a friend gifted me a wonderful book. Among Wolves — it’s almost entirely based on the research and field notes of Gordon Haber — researcher and advocate/activist for the wolves of Denali National Park. The book was compiled and complemented by additional input from colleague Mary Beth Holleman after Haber’s death in 2009. As someone who’s been immersed in the world of domestic dog behavior and training for quite a while now, I’m amused by the divisiveness that arises when making references to the dog’s ancestry from wolves. Some say that comparing dogs to wolves is inaccurate and that studies of wolves and dogs have been disproven. Their argument is that the studies were done on wolves in captivity and therefore were not relevant. Granted wolves and dogs aren’t the same. They have a common heritage but tens of thousands of years of evolution and change have broadened the differences between them. That said, there are strong parallels with great value to consider.

This is why I love Haber’s work so much. His work was entirely done in the wild with no engagement directly with the wolves. He was a pure observer. His observations revealed substantial information about the structure of wolf families, their interactions, and their social and emotional connections.

You may or may not have noticed the word I haven’t used referring to wolves.

Pack.

That’s because words matter and as words go, it’s incorrect.

pack

noun

· a group of things wrapped or tied together for easy handling or carrying; a bundle, especially one to be carried on the back of an animal or a person: a mule pack; a hiker’s pack.

· a definite quantity or standard measure of something wrapped up or otherwise assembled for merchandising (sometimes used in combination):a pack of cigarettes; a six-pack of beer.

A collection of things — typically identical. Pack of gum. Pack of matches. Pack of cigarettes.

Now let’s think about a group of wolves. Even a naturally occurring one. While there’s genetic similarity (not altogether different from a nuclear human family of origin), those individual family members are just that, individual. Even “identical” twins, while far closer than your average pair of family humans, are still not 100% exactly the same.

And then there’s the socialized experience of the word “pack”. If you dig further down to the definitions on the same listing at dictionary.com, or seek out other definitions from various and sundry online sources, you’ll find wolves mentioned specifically and always in this sentence “a group of wolves … or other predators”. Predators. An animal that “naturally preys on others” or “a person or group that ruthlessly exploits others.”

Ruthlessly exploits.

Ouch.

So that’s not altogether pleasant or positive.

I don’t know about you, but the idea of being part of a group that’s preying on another — especially in ruthless fashion — doesn’t sit very well on me. I’m not talking about natural order of nature and food chain stuff, I’m talking about the social implication side of things. Yes, wolves eat other animals. And for humans that aren’t 100% plant-based, so do we. This is about the socialized definition and the way in which we “feed” on others in a different way.

While the etymological roots of when the word pack began to be used in reference to a group of wolves, some historical studies imply it began as a way to describe the “sinister” creatures impacting rancher’s livelihoods. Even through history the wolf has been demonized — the werewolf, the array of nursery rhymes and stories — from Little Red Riding Hood to the Three Little Pigs — where the wolf was the bad guy. Using the word pack is a logical extension of that demonization — creating a description for the group that implies violent, exploitive, and dangerous ways of being.

The words we choose and how we choose to use them. It matters. Words can be wielded — more powerfully than a sword as the saying goes — to many ends. It can be overt — the open and direct use of words to lift up or to tear down. Insults or accolades. Authentically positive words are delightful, can lift someone’s spirit as well as strengthen a foundation of self-worth. Openly insulting language can be damaging, no doubt, but if the recipient has a sufficient sense of self-esteem, the words may be more of a glancing blow rather than a direct hit.

And there’s the point. Having a sufficient sense of self-esteem. Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote that “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” speaks to this very thing. If I am solid in my own sense of self, no external comments — positive or negative — can pull me off that beam.

A few months ago I was sitting outside a café with a friend when a father with a young daughter, perhaps around 3 years old, came walking about. The child was breathtaking — flaxen blonde hair, blue eyes you could spot from feet away, and a delightfully bouncy countenance that was impossible not to meet with a smile. Which is preicsely what I did.

“What a beautiful little girl,” I remarked as they passed.

Without missing a beat, the father turned to me with a smile and matter-of-factly replied, “She’s powerful, smart, and capable.”

Words matter.

A bit abashed at my own internalized misogyny, I smiled and thanked the father for catching that. When the little girl looked at me, I smiled again and said, “Your dad is 100% right. You are smart, capable, very powerful and on top of it all you’re beautiful inside and out.” When I related this experience the other day to some family members, a few of them rolled their eyes and another exhaled with a sigh and said, “Wow, so that seems a little bit of overkill. I mean she’s only 4. What does it matter?”

Words matter.

The experiences of our earliest years — many researchers agree that’s between the ages of 0 and 8 to 10 — are the imprints that set the course of our lives. The things we hear and feel, the interactions that we have, these are the lessons that land and stick. We then spend the rest of our adult lives working around, over and through these lessons. Thing is, you cannot resolve that which you do not first dissolve.

It’s like trying to plaster over cracks that are caused by a shifting or faulty foundation. You may superficially “remove” the visual breaks but underneath, things are still shifting.

There’s a gated community in which I was recently visiting where it appeared they were going to massive effort to reinforce the roads. When I asked what was happening I was told that when the community was planned, they didn’t plan well. They planned for the number of homes and rough number of cars and traffic, but failed to account for the load bearing of construction trucks carrying rock, concrete, steel and timber up the hill. Now, about a decade in, the very roads were collapsing from the inside out as massive construction projects for huge homes up and down the hillside were resulting in traffic that the roads weren’t designed to withstand.

As I took a walk one morning I saw a spiderweb network of tar painted across surface cracks, except in some areas you could see gaping rifts running along the road, the edges of each crack thickly lined with the tar that had been used for several years to “mend” the surface. The road splitting from the inside out.

Words. They matter. They also cut deep and leave marks under the surface that can loosen the foundation.

This is a topic that bears more discussion and unpacking but for the sake of this post and conversation, I’ll ask this:

Where in your life do you gloss over things, just power through and figure that a stripe of tar will be sufficient to heal the crack that’s forming?

If you’re like me, the journey to dig up and re-pour the foundation is equal parts archeological dig and massive construction project.

I’m ready to excavate. How about you?

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