“Whatever you do to the animals, you do to yourself. Remember that.”
Edwin says this to Cole in order for him to appreciate the importance of nature in general but also to understand its importance for his own healing. When Cole showed anger towards the Spirit Bear or towards any other animal, it always impeded his own healing. Further, if Cole could not be peaceful towards simple, humble animals, he certainly would not be ready to cease to be angry at humans, with their increased complexity. Thus, anger towards more vulnerable creatures would cause him to harm himself and slow down his own healing. Cole's life, especially on the island, was intertwined with the natural world.
“The mauling didn’t make sense. In the past, everything had always been afraid of him. Why wasn’t the bear scared?”
This quote by the third-person omniscient narrator gives us insight into Cole's own thought process in the aftermath of the Spirit Bear attack. The fearlessness of the bear is the final factor that makes Cole understand just how weak and vulnerable he is. The bear literally crushes his body but it also figuratively crushes his pride and his sense of anger and power over others. These vices certainly continue to trouble Cole in the second half of the book, but this quote gives an insight into his process of learning and growth through Circle Justice.
“A strange thought occurred to Cole: the world was beautiful. Yes, the world was beautiful….He wondered why he had never noticed this all before. How much beauty had he missed in his lifetime? How much beauty had he destroyed?” p 114
The narrator gives us this insight into Cole's thoughts as he lies on the floor just after the Spirit Bear attacked him. It is from this position of vulnerability that he understands the wonder of nature. He is for the first time excited about his surroundings, and this is ironic because with so many of his bones broken, he can no longer move around to see them and enjoy them.
“Yes, [the hot dog celebration] was a big deal. It was a party. It was a feast. It was a sharing and a celebration. All because that is what I made it. Yours was simply food because that is all you chose for it to be. All of life is a hot dog. Make of it what you will. I suggest you make your time here on the island a celebration.”
Upon returning for a second time to the island, Garvey makes this comment to Cole in order to help him understand the importance of changing one's mindset. This approach to positive thinking as a tool for personal growth was an essential point in Cole's development that allows him to approach his time of isolation on the island with excitement rather than resentment or boredom.
“[Cole] couldn’t stop wondering why he had been born and thinking about all the twisted events that had brought him to this moment. It seemed a bizarre dream to be standing alone on this rocky hillside in Alaska with a round stone at his feet, his mind filled with thoughts so totally different from anything he’d known running around on the streets back in Minneapolis. He felt like a new and a different person.”
Cole thinks this phrase as he carries out the "ancestor rock" ritual where he carries a big stone representing his life and those who have come before him up a hill, only to roll it back down as a representation of him letting go of his anger. The cultural difference of this "ancestor" tradition, the natural setting of the island, and Cole's own process of growth help him understand just how a significant of a change occurred within him.
“A whale migrates but it doesn’t have a home…I feel like the whale.”
Cole concedes this to Garvey and Edwin as they try out their first traditional Indian dance based on an animal that has been spotted during the day. As Cole imitated the breaching of the humpback whale, he thought of this insight. This quote illustrates the connection between nature's lessons and personal growth that is present throughout the novel.
Cole: “[Peter’s] never going to forgive me.”
Garvey: “Think how much your arm and hip still hurt. Wounds of the spirit heal even slower.”
This quote exemplifies the duality of body and spirit that is essential to understand Cole's transformation. His own pain of being attacked and isolated on the island pales in comparison with Peter's suffering, and yet Cole requires Peter's forgiveness in order for his transformation to be complete. The importance of "wounds of the spirit" is a touching and universal concept that helps Cole understand his own predicament.
“Being invisible had nothing to do with being seen. Being invisible meant not being sensed or felt.”
Cole gains this major insight during his second stay on the island when he is troubled because he has not seen the Spirit Bear again. He realized that he had to be "invisible" in order to allow the bear to come near him, but he had been troubled by how to achieve that. This insight is also deeply psychological and represents a sort of self-therapy that Cole had been conducted to understand better his own feelings and to cast out those that are negative.
“The dances, carving the totem, carrying the ancestor rock, touching the Spirit Bear, it was all the same thing—it was finding out who I really was.”
This quote, near the end of the novel, summarizes in a sentence the point of the book's title and, indeed, of the whole book. These particular events, while their content and character were interesting and important, were merely means to get to the end of personal growth, healing, and forgiveness. In this way, the author makes the lesson of the book go beyond a particular boy in Alaska who encounters a bear into a broader story of the man's search for self and meaning.
“Standing beside the totems, he explained to Peter that being invisible was being a part of life’s circle and accepting it. ‘This morning, when we forgave each other, we also forgave ourselves…We allowed ourselves to become a part of the big circle. That’s why we saw the Spirit Bear.’”
This quote unites many of the book's themes. It explores how Peter, Cole, and others are united in "the big circle" and how forgiveness was essential in order to see truth and healing. The bear at this point becomes very much symbolic in that it appears as a sign that Cole and Peter have found the right path to their personal growth and are ready for the next step of their lives.
Touching Spirit Bear Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Touching Spirit Bear is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The most important lesson Cole learned from the Spirit Bear was the power of forgiveness. The Spirit Bear's attack made him realize the pain he had inflicted upon others and made him sorry for his actions. His eventual forgiveness, in addition to...
In Chapter One, we are first introduced to Cole Matthews, a juvenile delinquent, who is on the way to an Alaskan village to be subjected to Circle Justice—a term we only later come to understand. Cole broke into a store illegally,...