The little seal didn’t look good. The first time I passed it, I didn’t even see it because it resembled one of the many rocks that had eroded from the cliffs during the winter storms. I went back to look more closely because of a sign warning that the seal was being monitored and it was a federal crime to disturb it.
The seal was very still. It’s skin seemed loose and patchy. If it hadn’t been for that sign, I probably would have called an animal rescue agency. The sign, however, explained in some detail that the shaggy little seal was an Elephant Pup, undergoing a “catastrophic molt.”
Female elephant seals have one pup in late December. Each mom nurses her pup for four to six weeks with milk so rich that the pup grows from about 75 pounds at birth to 250-350 pounds in less than a month. The mother doesn’t eat while she’s nursing, so after a month, she escorts the pup to a beach and leaves it on its own while she goes out to sea to feed.
For the next 25-28 days, the pup sheds the layer of epidermis attached to it’s dark baby fur and grows the sleak new silver coat of adulthood. During the process, the young seal loses half its body weight and looks pretty awful. People who find the seals often assume they are dying which is what I would have done if it hadn’t been for the sign.
Catastrophic molting made me think about situations in which we are forced to shed cherished ideas about what works in our lives. Environments may change. Unexpected harms may be revealed. Anticipated benefits may fail to materialize. Regardless of the reason, something we thought was working isn’t working anymore. In order to get to new forms of cooperation, we have to go through the painful process of shedding a failed hypothesis.
In my own life, I went through this process when we learned that our infant daughter was deaf. My husband and I had to let go of our fantasies about the kind of life a hearing child would have. It felt like a catastrophic molt, but we emerged with a sleeker, tougher hypothesis that allowed us to cooperate in building a good life for the child we actually had..
This kind of catastrophic molt shows up in other settings too. During the past twenty years, one industry after another has been disrupted by technology. As a result, workers who were very proficient with a certain set of skills find themselves as irrelevant as blacksmiths after the invention of the automobile. They made perfectly reasonable assumptions about the kinds of capabilities that would make them employable, but the environment changed in ways that undercut those assumptions. The only way to thrive going forward is to shed the original hypothesis.
For many citizens, the most recent election has also triggered the equivalent of a catastrophic molt. Suddenly, structures, policies and procedures which produced cooperative benefits in the past were called into question. Many people found themselves reluctant to shed assumptions, even when it was clear that they were no longer producing mutual benefits. When people put faith and effort into particular cooperative ventures, this kind of recalibration can certainly feel catastrophic.
Perhaps that’s why the predicament of the baby elephant seal interested me. I went home and read more about this remarkable mammal. As it turns out, catastrophic molting is an annual event. Unlike other mammals that shed and regrow hair year round, seals live in waters so cold that blood doesn’t circulate next to the skin. Once a year, they haul themselves out of the sea and grow an entirely new layer of epidermis. The seals are vulnerable when they molt, so they pack tightly together. They may look tattered and tired, but they are developing the sleek new skins that will allow them to spend another year at sea, diving to depths that would destroy other mammals.
Something similar is possible for people who find that a hypothesis about cooperation has failed. We may need to haul ourselves out of the water where we’ve been swimming. We may need to sit quietly in the company of others who are having the same experience. But we need to use that time to rethink our assumptions and generate new hypotheses about how cooperation might produce benefits that are genuinely mutual.
Shedding old ideas about how things should be may feel catastrophic, but it’s actually an opportunity. How can we expand our cooperative vision to include those we may have overlooked, to correct unintended harms and to create ways for people to thrive in a changed environment?