While everyone is stuck at home, lonely, bored, limited in access and opportunity, while we are consciously or unconsciously reflecting on our value in this new reality – Am I being productive enough? Am I taken care of? Am I helping enough? Who will look after me? – all while being “addicted” to Netflix, a great number of us will stumble upon the trending docuseries, The Tiger King.
It seems like I can’t turn anywhere without someone making reference to it. Whether it’s a late night host, or an online article I stumble upon, or even here in this tiny town among some of my local Mexican friends, it seems everyone has something to say about this provocative and disturbing show.
If you have never heard of it, take a moment now and just google it – you’ll see what I am talking about. In short, it is a reality TV style documentary about a man named “Joe Exotic,” who made his living breeding and raising “pay to pet” tiger cubs and showing adult tigers at a “zoo” in Oklahoma -before being ultimately jailed for his involvement in a murder for hire plot.
Every time it seems like the show could not get more bizarre or more unsettling, a new character or plot twist is introduced and the viewer is left jaw hanging and mind spinning.
And, who knew there were so many people who had lions and tigers in cages in their yards? Not I. Nor did I know that it was de rigueur to sneak baby tigers into fancy hotels so rich people could have them as part of their lavish all nighters. As I watched the series, I found myself thinking of a phrase I often use as an invitation to open our hearts and minds to the surprising – and sometimes troubling – lives people lead:
“Lives roll out in a billion different ways.”
And yet. Even though I thought I knew that there were so many different ways to live, I was reminded once again of how little I really know about what my neighbors are doing, how they are living. And, it turns out, just like there are people who climb Everest without oxygen, and people who save cereal boxes from every decade, just like there are people who live in cults or communities that I don’t understand, there are people who invest in, and surround themselves with, big cats and all the trappings – so to speak – that come along with that lifestyle. Just another one of the billion ways.
In the beginning, I was probably just like most viewers: Intrigued, appalled, angered, concerned for the animals and deeply judgmental of the cast of characters. But as the series went on, and the Corona virus continued to change everything around me, I found myself being changed in the way I viewed what was happening on the screen and in the story.
It started to occur to me that here I was myself, not so different than these characters, alone and lonely, questioning everything and especially constructs of power and wealth and who is valued and who is not. I began to feel the full appreciation of all of the relative privilege I count on – through no real effort or earning of my own – during this pandemic. I have a safe, comfortable home, I have meaningful work and people who love me, I have a sense of who I am and how I can be of service, I have enough money to know that I will have food and basic comfort for a good long while. I began to think more and more of all the people who have none of these things.
With increasing awareness of an apparent shift through this pandemic, from individualism and guardedness to collective care and honest sharing of vulnerabilities, I began to have a very different experience of The Tiger King – both the show and the character. In fact, I had a different experience of all of the characters, the ways in which their lives had rolled out, the ways that they had learned to survive. I found myself thinking more about the ways in which people – just like me – could be showing great concern for the suffering of strangers due to the Corona virus, while simultaneously finding distraction and entertainment in watching the profound suffering of strangers due to generational poverty, drug addiction and lack of a sense of deep essential worth. One was worth my effort and concern, the other my derision and judgement. One was a crisis to be addressed with my full attention and radically open heart, and the other a crisis to be ignored and judged – blame placed squarely on the person “infected” by poverty and drug addiction, by unequal distribution of wealth and systems set up to devalue them.
What became my focus as I watched the Tiger King was the thought, “This is what happens when people are deeply, existentially lonely.” This is a pandemic. This separateness that creates so much suffering is a plague that has gone left unchecked for far too long.
The Tiger King is what happens when people are stuck in cycles of oppression and when they are actively excluded and thrown away as insignificant at best and “trashy” at worst. The Tiger King is one of the “billion ways” in which people live – especially when they feel they are left without options – one that we should be able to relate to now more than ever: isolated, lonely, with uncertain futures, wondering if we matter, if we will be taken care of, feeling like we are trapped, cooped up without freedom of movement, wanting to be useful in the world, wanting to know we have something of value to contribute, and discovering all of our own addictions – food, social media, Netflix, poverty porn.
It became obvious to me how, even when the story of The Tiger King was sensational enough, the filmmakers found all the right angles to diminish and dehumanize the characters even further. We love looking at the guy with no teeth. We can’t look away from the fact that not one, but two, of the workers at the “zoo,” are amputees, that Joe Exotic managed to get two ostensibly “straight” men to marry him in a three way wedding. Make no mistake, these are not sympathetic characters. And to even touch on the aspect of the animals they kept becomes a whole other issue. But still, I can’t help but think of the “rock star” movies I’ve seen over the years where there is a big cat in a hotel room or at a party. Where are those coming from? And how do we not apply the same judgment to the consumers of these products as we do to the providers?
But that’s how it always is. The wealthy and privileged have always benefitted off the poor while at the same time deriding them.
When I see the Tiger King, I see lonely, sad people looking to be seen, to be loved, to feel valued in one way or another, looking to numb their own pain through whatever means available. Whether it is through their association with the cats themselves, through the communities they find on these deeply dysfunctional ranches, or through being the “big cat” themselves, the one with the most money, the most wives or husbands, the most charisma, they find some sense of belonging, of value, of being loved, of freedom from suffering. While their particular methods may be very foreign and disturbing to us, and it certainly is for me, I can also only see how they want the exact same things that I want – to be loved, valued and surrounded by people who love me and a community I can rely on, now during the virus, and always.
Tiger King, and the Corona virus, invite us to really dig in to how we are connected in our shared deep human longings.
Both give us an opportunity, not just to have the time to sit around and watch seven some hours of sensational television, but to open our hearts and minds in crisis, and to perhaps open our eyes to the crisis that is all around us all the time, long before Covid 19.
Perhaps Tiger King will inspire us, even when all of this social distancing is over, to consider the crisis of poverty, of classism, of drug addiction, of loneliness, isolation and exclusion, and to respond to it with the same vigor, collective focus and deep love we have found in ourselves through this strange moment in time we are sharing. Perhaps, in the end, there will be no Corona virus, but there will also be no “Tiger Kings.” Perhaps we will have learned to see our connection, to take care of each other and the earth, and to know that the crisis of loneliness and exclusion erodes the health of our souls, our communities and our planet, a crisis we must address, eradicate and heal.
Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. ~
Love immense and infinite, broad as the sky and deep as the ocean — this is the one great gain in life. Blessed is he who gets it. ~ Swami Vivekananda