Survival of the Kindst – The Reformed Journal Blog


A chimpanzee named Mahale gave birth to a son in mid-November. Kucheza was born via cesarean section at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas and required a few days of intensive veterinary care before he could be reunited with his mother. When he was ready to be returned to Mahale, Kucheza was wrapped in a blue blanket and placed on a cushion in the center of an enclosure. Here you can follow the reunion of mother and child.

Mahale comes through the door and looks at the ceiling. She sits and stares. There is no movement from inside the ceiling. Mahale looks away and rubs his nose. Then she gets up on all fours and fixes the ceiling.

I don’t know enough about chimpanzee behavior to interpret how she feels. Can she see Kucheza but maybe thinks he’s not alive because he’s so quiet? Did she get lost in some kind of postpartum haze?

And then Kucheza moves. He stretches his little hand out of the blanket. In a blink that took my breath away, Mahale picked up her baby with the wildest and quickest of tenderness. She scoops with her left hand and holds Kucheza close to her body. She then cradles him with her right hand and frees her left hand to untie the blanket from him so she can hold him skin to skin. Mahale grunts softly. Her knees tremble as she wraps her body around him. She looks him in the face. she looks up She looks down. She still is. I was one of the billions who watched this moment in amazement over and over again.


The instinct that drives a mother to pick up and hold her baby like this is, according to Charles Darwin, nature’s strongest instinct. Susan Cain, in her book Bittersweetcites this part of Darwin The Descent of Man:

The social instincts cause an animal to enjoy the company of its fellows, to feel some sympathy for them, and to render them various services… Such actions as the above seem to be the simple result of the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts be than those of any other instinct or motive; for they are done too instantaneously to think about, or to feel any joy or pain at that time.

Too instant. That’s what we saw in Mahale: the instantaneous instinct to take care of something small and helpless. The immediate sympathy that is faster than the mind or the heart.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkley, studies emotions and social interaction (and was consulted extensively for the Pixar film, from the inside to the outside). Reflecting on Darwin’s work, Keltner said that “Survival of the Kindst” would have been a better nickname than “Survival of the Fittest” (the latter coined a generation later by social Darwinist Herbert Spencer). Survival at its finest. Keltner says, “There is nothing like our ability to grieve and care for things lost or in need” (quoted by Cain, Bittersweet, p. 14). Sadness ignites compassion that brings people together. Shared suffering connects us and helps us to survive.


In his book lament for a son Nicholas Wolterstorff tells the story of the death of his son Eric in a mountaineering accident. In the midst of his raw musings he wrote a sentence that was a North Star to me in my grief and writing. “I will try to stop the wound from healing, in recognition that we still live in the old order of things. I will try to prevent them from healing in solidarity with those who sit next to me on the mourners of humanity” (p. 63). Common suffering unites us. And we survive together in this kindness and solidarity.

We comfort one another with the comfort we have received from the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1).

The God of all comfort who said, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no pity on the child she has borne? Even if she forgets, I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15)!

The God of all comfort, who sent us the afflicted, who bore our sorrows and bore our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4). He bonded with us by sharing our sorrows.

And although for a while it seemed like the dearest would do it not survive (pierced and crushed as he was by the stronger), in the end his kindness outlived us. revived us. saved us (Titus 3:4-5). By his wounds we are healed.


In November my siblings and I saw Mahale and Kucheza reunite. we loved it So much. My sister was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly after Kucheza’s birth, so as siblings we faced (and find) our own mortality, though our mother’s death continues to shake us. We have chosen to imagine that Jesus in His goodness entrusts our Mother with the task of welcoming us into the life beyond death. Our hands will stretch through the veil and in an instant – lightning – in the twinkling of an eye – Mama will pick us up with the wildest and fastest tenderness. She will free us from the robes of the grave and hold us skin to skin.

Somehow, in this new order of things, the bonds of sorrow that bound us will twist into bonds of joy, and we will survive and thrive in everlasting kindness. Forever.

Header image: by Ryan Al Bisri on Unsplash

Note: On the morning of December 22, five weeks after Kucheza’s birth, he was found in his mother’s arms, not breathing, and had suffered (probably accidental) head trauma sometime in the previous night. Mahale loved Kucheza from the beginning to the early end. Rest in peace, little one.

Image Credit: Sedgwick County Zoo

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