Several months ago I purchased a lake property in the Mexican state of Michoacan. I am building a bungalow on part of the property and when my house sells here in Morelos, I plan to to move into the much smaller space. In anticipation of making the move, probably in January 2024, I have started the process of sifting through all my accumulated “stuff.” The stuff includes all the materials from 34 years of my psychological practice which included paperwork from dozens and dozens of seminars, workshops, and presentations, as well as personal writings and numerous articles I had written for local, regional, and national magazines. While perusing the contents of every file folder, I found this hand-written piece on yellow-lined tablet paper.
At the beginning of the summer when he was 9, I gave my oldest son a BB gun. We were at the lake where I had built a cabin in the midst of several acres of woods and marshes. Was he excited!? No kidding! In the rural Midwest, that first gun is a small part of entering manhood, and as soon as he had the airgun in his hands, he stood a little taller. I gave him instructions on safety and how to aim the gun. Then I instructed him on what he could shoot and not shoot.
“You can shoot pop or beer cans, paper, and styrofoam cups, but clean up any debris left after your target practice. Pick it ALL up! Don’t shoot glass bottles because they leave shards of glass, and don’t shoot heavy metal cans because the BB might ricochet back at you. Don’t shoot at signs, rocks, or power lines. Don’t shoot at cats or dogs. And never, ever point the gun at a person. Keep the barrel down whenever you are not aiming at something.”
I realized my list of “don’ts” was getting longer and longer. Then I told him the same thing my dad told me when I got my BB gun. “The only birds you can shoot at are sparrows and blackbirds.”
Now my son’s face lit up! Here was something alive he could actually shoot! Then a slight frown crossed his face, and he asked, “Why can I shoot sparrows and blackbirds and not other birds?”
I had not expected this question at all. I thought for a minute, then said, “Because there are so many sparrows and blackbirds, and they’re not the pretty songbirds.” He seemed appeased with my answer, and his wide smile returned. Satisfied, he turned and headed toward the woods to find wild game.
However, I was not satisfied. My answer did not sit right with me. When I got my BB gun, I remembered my dad, and also his dad saying something similar to me about sparrows and blackbirds. Apparently, the birds were some sort of nuisance and, therefore, could be shot on sight.
Mulling this over, I abruptly realized I had just created a fourth-generation terrorist toward sparrows and blackbirds! Had they ever caused me any real harm? No. Arguably they were not the prettiest birds, but did that mean they should be exterminated? No. I was left with a state of mild turmoil, but eventually shrugged off the unease, and trudged off to supervise my son.
A couple of months later, in mid-October, I was out for an early morning walk along a graveled township road. This was always my favorite time of year to be at my lake cabin in Minnesota, and I had spent a few days alone there. Alongside the road were lowlands filled with marsh grass, exploding cattails atop light brown stems, and a variety of other shrubs and grasses. On the higher ground was Sumac–its deep red and burgundy leaves still glistening with the morning dew. Still higher up rose stands of trees: maples mostly stripped of their once bright orange/red leaves, oaks more fully clothed with their crimson pointed leaves, and the birch and poplar still vividly golden and yellow, almost iridescent as they bathed in the rays of the rising sun. Silence. Tranquility.
Suddenly the quiet was pierced by a loud, long burst of birdsong all around me! Flocks of red-winged blackbirds! They too were feeling the wonder and beauty of this mystical morning, and they expressed it in an enthusiastic, unrestrained outburst of song! I laughed and tipped my hat to them in gratitude. Then it occurred to me that the blackbirds and the sparrows were about the only birds left at this time of year. All the “pretty” ones had already fled for warmer climes. The blackbirds and sparrows had stayed to celebrate the wonders of late autumn with me. As a youth, these were the very same birds I had stalked with my BB gun. They were the birds my dad and his dad decided were a nuisance, and this past summer, I had perpetuated the same attitude in my son, when I had unleashed him upon them with his brand-new BB gun.
Now, I know one young boy with a BB gun is not going to decimate the sparrow and blackbird populations. That is not the point. The point is I failed to communicate to my son the sanctity of all living things. Instead, I conveyed the attitude that some forms of life are so plentiful and less pretty, therefore, they are less valuable, and consequently more disposable.
I wondered how many similar attitudes I had unknowingly already instilled in my son. Attitudes are indeed deeply rooted and highly contagious. They are persistent too, lasting across generations almost as though they have become part of the family gene pool.
I decided then that I would have a chat with my son as soon as the timing was right. Maybe on the next crisp, dry, colorful autumn morning while on a nature walk together. Maybe I would begin the chat right after the sparrows and blackbirds burst into another fall chorus of joyous birdsong.
I wrote that article 40 years ago! I see its relevance today as the world seems to be as divisive as ever–hundreds of terrorist groups worldwide waging war on their targeted “sparrows and blackbirds.” The “us versus them” mentality seems as entrenched as ever in humanity’s worldview. My spiritual journey over the past 40 years has brought me to an entirely different worldview–one of oneness, harmony, the interconnectedness of all things, and the great need for collaboration and cooperation to keep this marvelous world alive and thriving. I just came across this piece by Rumi that says it all:
What is praised is one, so the praise is one too,
many jugs being poured into a huge basin. All religions, all this singing, one song.
The differences are just illusion and vanity.
Looks slightly different on this wall than it does on that wall
And a lot different on this other one, but
It is still one light. We have borrowed these clothes, these
From a light, and when we praise, we pour them back in.
I do not remember that follow-up chat with my son, but I spoke on the phone with him the other day, and in the course of our conversation, he excitedly brought me up to date on all of his backyard friends–scrub jays, crows, squirrels, and any other winged or furry folk who happen to drop by. He talks to them and feeds them regularly, and he proudly told me he just recently coaxed a blackbird to nibble seeds from his open hand. At least I can say that in my family the chain of terrorizing sparrows and blackbirds appears to have ended at the fourth generation.