Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Never Shoot an Iguana

In her book Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen has a section called "From an Immigrant's Notebook", which is a collection of inimitable vignettes.

In one of the stories she tells of shooting an Iguana in the hope of making something from its beautiful skin. She describes the big lizard as having such colorful skin as to appear like a pane cut from an old church window. A strange thing happened when she shot the Iguana, which created for her a memory that she never forgot. As she was walking up toward the dead lizard, it faded, grew pale and all the color died out as in one long sigh. It was the life of the Iguana that radiated all of the glow and splendor, and now that the flame of life was put out, the beauty and soul of the Iguana was also gone.

She wrote a brief commentary on her memory of the experience. Ever since that time when she ‘shot an Iguana', the memory came back to haunt her each time she tried to capture some part of nature's beauty and take it for her private use. She recalled a line from the hero of a book she read as a child: "I have conquered them all, but I am standing amongst graves". She concluded: "For the sake of your own eyes and heart, never shoot an Iguana".

This pensive little story spoke volumes to me. I recalled the many sad experiences that I have had in trying to snatch natural beauty from its living source so that I could have it for myself. I remembered crushed butterflies, dead fireflies in a jar, cut flowers, dead song birds (killed with a slingshot) which could no longer sing, and treasured relationships killed by possessiveness.

Perhaps we have all, at some time in our lives, tried to capture for our own private use something of beauty which really did not belong exclusively to us, only to discover that it slowly (or quickly) died in our selfish grasp. Maybe it was more than a cut flower found dead the next day or a crushed butterfly. Perhaps you have smothered a person in the process of trying to possess them for yourself in a way in which one human being can never belong to another. Perhaps it was a child you did not allow to grow up because you loved them just like they were - dependent. It could be a husband or wife or an employee whose beauty, usefulness and love died when you held them too close.

Possessiveness is a dangerous characteristic. The desire to take for ourselves that which does not rightly belong to us is the source of so much human suffering. It is the cause of destructiveness at so many levels. It is a primary ingredient of wars. It is most destructive when it is exercised in the small kingdom of the family. A powerful, possessive and controlling parent or spouse can wreak havoc in a family and cause emotional problems in individuals that infect subsequent generations.

In his novel, The Sleeping Doll, Jeffery Deaver has one of his characters explain why she ran away from home and joined a cult when she was a teenager. "When I was growing up they (parents) were very authoritarian. I had to do everything the way they insisted. How I made my room, what I wore, what I was taking in school, what my grades were going to be. I got spanked until I was fourteen and I think he only stopped because my mother told my father it wasn't a good idea with a girl that age....They claimed it was because they loved me, and so on. But they were just control freaks. They were trying to turn me into a little doll for them to dress up and play with".

This is a story I have heard, in one form or another, hundreds of times. It often comes from young women who left home as soon as they could escape a possessive, controlling and/or abusive situation. Ironically, these women often subconsciously decide to marry a controlling husband and/or join a church or some other group with a controlling leader. They do so without realizing how, or understanding why, they are putting themselves right back into a possessive, controlling and potentially abusive situation. Thus the debilitating impediment moves from one generation to the next, leaving the landscape littered with victims.

Beware of over-weening possessiveness at any level. It is often expressed under the guise of love. Many insecure young women who are starved for love and attention misread possessiveness for love and learn one or two children too late that they have made a terrible mistake. When you kill the spirit of a person with over-weening possesssiveness and control, the beauty of the person and the relationship is lost.

In a ‘cut flower' civilization such as our own, where we are tempted to separate beauty from its source for fear it will fly away, or for fear someone else will take it, we would be wise to remember Isak Dinesen's experience.

Hold beauty and your beloved with a loose hand. Do not shoot the Iguana.