By JIM NICHOLS
One of the things humans just seem to do naturally is to compare our behavior to that of animals. We are good at this anthropomorphic trick—saying, “Look how that animal is acting just like a human.” Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist at Cornell University, suggests this is backward reasoning. “Thinking of animals like people is misleading and unhelpful and offers no assistance in understanding animal behavior.” He goes on to say, “On the other hand, thinking about people as animals with the same survival goals can provide profound insights into what we do.”
Did you get what change he made? He said, “Don’t think about animals as people; think about people as animals.”
A few years ago, my wife and I were temporarily living in another city. We lived on the third and top floor of an apartment complex. This was good for several reasons including a better view, less street noise, and no heavy-footed neighbors living overhead. Another plus to this arrangement was a better opportunity to attract birds.
My wife and I like birds. At our house, we have several bird feeders in the back yard and enjoy the modest variety of colors, sizes, and songs that we attract through the bird food we gladly supply. Since we did not have the option of bird feeders at the apartment, we found that we could open one of our third floor windows, spread seed on the outside brick shelf, and attract some feathered friends. had not realized that birds feeding off a hard surface make a clear “pecking” sound when they are close enough to hear through a window, even a closed window.
However, we did not always keep the windows closed. When the weather moderated, we enjoyed opening the windows to let in fresh air. The windows lacked screens.
One day we returned to the apartment to find a dove walking along the windowsill on the inside. Apparently, the opened window was too opened and the bird was able to enter the apartment. The bird was not flying around the room (as I have had birds do in similar situations), but was in a relatively agitated way walking back and forth on the windowsill looking outside and modestly tapping at the window. Although the window was still opened somewhat, it did not seem to be able to find the exit that was the same as the entrance. It simply continued to look outside and make efforts to get through the solid window glass.
The window glass was in reality a transparent barrier between two worlds for the dove. For reasons its birdbrain could not understand, it had wandered from its home world into the world of humans. Now it could see its home world, but could not figure out how to get there. It could see through the glass dimly, but it wanted to see face-to-face.
I do not know about you, but there is something fundamentally unsatisfying about life to me and many of us, if we will admit it, have the feeling there must be another place, another realm where things are complete. A place where there are not scary times and scary people—a place where we do not have to feel that we are always trying to achieve and compete. This may not necessarily be a description of heaven, but, clearly, something important is wrong here. To paraphrase Henri Nouwen, we are caught up in human glory that is the result of being considered better, faster, more beautiful, more powerful, or more successful than others are. The better our scores on the scoreboard of life, the more glory we receive, and the more upward mobility we achieve. However, we have also figured out that this collection of human glory leads to rivalry; rivalry carries within it the beginning of violence; and violence is the way to death.
We do not talk about this aspect of competition very much, but there is a darkness lurking here. Moreover, there is so much competition around us that we have the feeling we can never win at all this and that there surely must be another way to live.
Nevertheless, occasionally we have these glimpses of a different existence, an existence of peace and forgiveness and encouragement. They just flash by, but are there long enough for us to believe in such a place, in such an existence where time is different from what we know here.
I was able to get the dove out of the apartment and back to its own world. I did this by opening the window even more and physically pushing the bird toward the opening that it finally found. My touching of the bird distressed it, but that distress caused it to move more toward the opening in the window.
I am wondering if that is what we are supposed to do with one another sometimes. I wonder if I am supposed to touch you in such a way (or you are supposed to touch me in such a way), that, even though it momentarily distresses us, we are able not only to see through the window to the other world, but will be able to find the opening to it.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain.