Picture a dead end job with the glass ceiling weighing heavy on my pride. I know I’m good at writing letters because I consistently get results from them for my firm. I wonder how I can turn this skill into a bullet train ride out of here. The book I’ve just read, Gorillas in the Mist, pops into my brain. I touch pen to paper and out flows, Dear Dian Fossey. She had a reputation for liking gorillas more than people and this is the longest shot I’ve ever taken. I don’t know it at the time but this letter is my bullet train. Even though this took place more than 25 years ago, the lessons learned are still relevant today.
My story begins at the Jewel Theatre in East L.A. before my feet can even reach the gooey ground. I’m sobbing like a kitten just got run over by a truck as King Kong lands with a nauseating thud in front of the Empire State Building. I rage at the injustice. Why did they have to kill him? Why didn’t they take him back to the rain forest? Couldn’t anyone see he was the good guy! I was sure no one understood King Kong the way I did. This left me with an unresolved ache I would someday heal.
Flash forward to 1984 and my letter to Dian. Her research had revealed that gorillas were nature’s gentle giants. This resonated in my heart like a tuning fork. This letter was unlike any other I’d ever written. It flowed directly from my heart. I offered to pay my way to Rwanda along with a meager donation for the privilege of doing whatever Dian asked of me. If I could just pull one poacher’s snare from the ground and save one gorilla’s life I’ll die happy, I wrote. Three months later Dian responded with an invitation to her Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda, Africa. She had an upcoming lecture tour and needed some new photos. Would I be willing to help? I convinced my boss my volunteer work would reflect favorably on the firm. She gave me 3 weeks off.
A scientist once described coming eye-to-eye with a gorilla in the wild as a near death experience. His life was transformed forever as if a near fatal car wreck had jolted his priorities into order. And so it happened to me one day on the slope of Mount Visoke.
Dian had sent me out that morning with a Tutsi tracker. His job was to locate the gorillas then hang back and allow me to follow them for the day. One of my tasks was to count gorilla nests. Celestine led me to a group of fleshly abandoned ground nests then headed into the forest. As I stood taking my count an overwhelming idea took hold. I wondered what it would feel like to sit in a gorilla nest. The one before me had been crafted into a huge bowl shape by bending branches of a large bush toward the center. The imprint of the former occupant’s enormous body was clearly defined. I looked around. Not a gorilla in sight. I had to do it. I stepped inside and sat cross-legged, every molecule engaged. Just as a slow grin began to form on my face I looked down the side of the volcano and saw a mountain gorilla knuckle walking toward me.
Had I just made the biggest mistake of my life? Was I sitting in this gorilla’s nest? Dian’s words from the night before echoed in my brain.
“Never run from a gorilla. He’ll chase you.” Though every cell in my body screamed RUN! – I froze.
The gorilla weighed around 400 pounds and he locked his eyes with mine as he headed straight toward me. I heard Dian’s voice again.
“Never stare at a gorilla – it’s a threat.” I looked away.
When the gorilla reached the rim of the nest he leaned forward on his knuckles until his eyes were a half an inch from mine. His head was double the size of mine. His thoughtful gaze made me feel as if he were reaching down into my very soul. Was I a friend or a foe? I looked briefly in his eyes and uttered the guttural greeting Dian had taught me.
“Um-um-wuam, um-um-wuam.” She wanted me to communicate with gorillas in their language not in mine. I’d just reassured this gorilla I was a friend and he had nothing to fear. His breath on my face recalled another warning.
“Never breathe on a gorilla. They have no immunity to human diseases.
I took a deep breath, held it and looked away again to establish his dominance. He locked his gaze on me for about 2 minutes (it felt like 2 hours). Then he moved around to my left side, leaned into my shoulder and touched his lips gently to my ear. I swear it sounded like the entire planet was breathing. My body prickled and the sweat flowed. An eternity later he moved back around in front of me, bent forward then licked the sweat from my wrists. His tongue was as soft as a puppy’s. He glanced up at me once more before disappearing into the forest.
Don’t know how long I’d held my breath but it came back in 3 small sudden gasps like someone rescued from asphyxiation. I slowly climbed out of the nest and looked around for Celestine. Where was he when I needed him? He jumped out onto the trail with a huge smile, pointed at my heart and said one word – brave.
I doubt my feet touched the ground on the hour long walk back to Karisoke. I’d just had an encounter of the third kind with one of human’s closest living relatives. I knew then I had to do something more to help the last few mountain gorillas left – but that’s another story.
I learned many life and business lessons from this experience including, flight implies guilt, so stand your ground. In certain situations it’s okay to let someone feel they have the upper hand if it helps you achieve your goal, and the other guy will be more receptive if you speak his language.
If I hadn’t taken a chance and written that letter to Dian Fossey I’d have never gotten the opportunity to help the real King Kong.
Is there something you’ve been yearning to do? Consider writing a letter from the heart to someone who can help you do it. Don’t agonize over every word or worry what the other person will think of you. Simply write from your heart and let him make his own decision. In these days of emails and text messages a letter in hand will set you apart from everyone else. Try this and your wildest dream may just come true.