Birds of a Feather by George Merrill

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I met a wren one morning. She stood on my studio doorstep. Appearing so fearless, she surprised me.

Various kinds of wildlife pass by my studio window all the time; deer, turkeys, otters, groundhogs, rabbits, buzzards, eagles, owls and ospreys. I hear the frequent whimper of squirrels. I have never understood what troubles them that they sound so plaintive.

I am surrounded by trees that whisper in breezes. The magnolia tree is different; its large leaves strike each other emitting not a soft rush as conifers or hardwoods do, but a kind of rattling you hear when wind blows though venetian blinds.

While my relationship to regional wildlife is a fond one, except for ticks, it’s typically distant.

It was unusual for me to see wildlife as close up as the wren. As I approached, I fully expected she would fly away. Instead, she flew and lighted even closer to me on the railing by the steps. She looked at me. I stood still for fear of spooking her. Now she was barely more than three feet from where I stood. A fledgling, I was sure. On her head, I could see unruly strands of nap rather than smooth feathers. I reckoned that this was perhaps one of her early explorations of the neighborhood. She still possessed that precious once in a lifetime gift, the innocence of youth that revels in curiosity and wonder while finding the world irresistibly enchanting.

I didn’t move. In the background, I could hear the loud and insistent chirping of another wren. Perhaps it was Mom or Dad calling for her to come back home “this very instant” the way impatient parents yell at children who heedlessly wander away.

I moved my hand toward her. She turned her head side to side, first eying my hand from one side and then from the other. I suspect she may have been wondering if this was the best time to get out of there. Was she as curious about her proximity to me as I was to her?

Fidgeting some, she remained on the spot. Since she flew up from the doormat onto the railing, I knew she could fly. I was glad she wasn’t staying just because she was injured. Maybe I was flattered that given the choice to stay or leave, she found me interesting enough to hang out for a few minutes to see what I was all about.

Finally, she flew away – back home I assume. However, her leaving did not in the least silence the raucous chirping of the other wren somewhere in the distance. Some parent was probably lecturing this hapless bird brain about never crossing the street alone and especially sitting on some stranger’s doorstep. It’s sad as I think about it, though; that with so many of our wildlife neighbors conditioned to be wary of us, and we of them, man, beast and bird alike are consigned to regard our differences as dangers rather than opportunities for discovery. A peaceable kingdom is not immediately in the offing, but for mutual ecological survival, better it gets on the agenda sooner than later.

Today among our own species, citizens of the same country or even individuals in the same family, differences become occasions for suspicion. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in racial discrimination of blacks by white Americans. We also see the LGBT community being maligned and treated as moral failures while they justly appeal for respect and equality in a predominantly heterosexual society.

After 200,000 years on the planet, we still don’t know how to regulate differences except with violence and by discrimination. It’s as if we’re evolution’s immature adolescents, clinging to personal identities that affirm nothing more enlightening than, “I’m not like them.” This is an old problem, old enough to have been highlighted in Luke’s gospel written over 1900 years ago. We are slow learners. Hopefully we’ll be late bloomers. The parable is instructive

Luke’s story goes roughly like this. Two men go up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, a religious elite of that era. He is full of himself and looks down on everyone, or as my grandmother liked to say, “puts on airs.” He prays: “I thank you God that I’m not greedy, dishonest or an adulterer like everyone else or like that tax collector over there.” In those days, a tax collector was considered a social pariah. “I fast, and tithe generously,” the Pharisee’s prayer concludes.

What a guy!

The tax collector, on the other hand, stands apart from him, doesn’t even lift his head to heaven, but instead beats his breast, saying “God have pity on me, a sinner.”

Jesus likes the tax collector better and declares that the tax-collectors is the one that’s right with God.

Not for a moment do I interpret this story as endorsing self-denigration as a direct route to holiness. However, I do read it as a statement that humility, is. Arrogance and humility play out very differently in the human equation as much as they do in divine-human confrontations. It’s the difference between believing in possibilities – being open – or dismissing others contemptuously, as a bigot does. In humility, there’s also a suggestion of reverence, a sense of the integrity and potential goodness we are prepared, at least for starters, to impute to others with whom we deal. Stereotyping is a form of arrogance – thank God, I’m not like him.

A long way from a young wren sitting on my door step, you say? Not really. I was closer that morning than I have ever been to a wren in the wild. The wren’s openness made for a meeting between species. She had not responded fearfully as I’d fully expected, but behaved curiously, instead. And indeed, it turned out to be a moment for a mutual regulation of differences. I don’t normally talk to birds nor do any birds let me close enough so I can.

Imagine if gays and straights, blacks and whites, or that Muslims and Christians could feel sufficiently safe to confide with each other what it’s like to be the kind of people we are. It’s heartwarming to think how, in the last analysis, we might discover we’re more birds of a feather than we’d ever imagined.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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