Last week I passed a dead bird on the sidewalk as I was walking home from the gym. It was a baby bird, not quite a fledgling, that looked as if it had fallen out of its nest. One leg was crooked and there were a couple of flies on it. I cringed, stepped past the carcass, and muttered one word to myself: gross.
I walked half a block, stopped, and turned around. I’m not sure why. Maybe I figured I would kick it away from the sidewalk, or find a piece of cardboard to scoop it into a nearby trash can. When I returned, the bird was still there, motionless, accumulating more flies. I bent over and, on a hunch, blew softly on it. The bird moved. It fluttered its fuzzy wings and kicked its little legs, even the one that looked broken. It shook the flies off it and opened its beak, gasping for air.
In that moment, my whole perception of the bird shifted. It was not something disgusting to be kicked aside or thrown in the trash. It was a creature that was injured and in pain, a creature desperate for help. Far from being “gross,” it was something to be sheltered and protected. In one breath, the bird went from being a thing to being a being.
How did my attitude toward the bird turn so suddenly? What caused the shift? The bird hadn't changed, only my perception of it had. The difference: I saw the life in it.
How often do we fail to see the life in other people? We do it with staggering frequency, every time we distance people from us by classifying them as “other.” On a macro level, we treat people as “other” when they are from a different country, or ethnicity, or religion, or region, or college, or political party. On a micro level, we dismiss individuals because they are weird, or poor, or ugly, or fat, or differently abled. It’s easy to categorize people; we’ve been doing it since we were children choosing tables in the cafeteria at lunch.
But the more “otherness” we wedge in-between us and those we don’t like or understand, the less humanity we see in them. They become things, not people. The church and its historic relationship with LGBT people is a perfect example. By casting out LGBT Christians and the people who love them, the church has created an us-versus-them otherness, a distance between those who are following God and those who, presumably, are misled. And the further we are from each other, the harder it is to see the light of the other person’s spirit. The easier it is to see them as aberrant and abhorrent. The easier it is to withhold our empathy.
What’s the natural reaction of a person who has never seen two men kiss? Gross. I heard it a thousand times growing up. Gross. Is the only explanation for this visceral reaction that the act of two men kissing is inherently sinful and wrong? Or could it be that church and culture have created so much distance between themselves and “others” that they are too far away to recognize a simple expression of love as anything but gross? When we disassociate ourselves from people, they stop being beings and become things. They are dead birds, worthy of nothing but a trash bin.
If only the church would return to these people and watch them take a breath—see them kick and flutter, fighting for life in a hostile world. What a shift in perception the church would experience. Once we see the humanity in people, it’s impossible to dismiss them as things. No person could be gross, for each is a living, breathing reflection of God.
As for the actual bird, I contacted a local avian society and followed their instructions: I carefully scooped the bird into a box, then placed it beneath some shrubs for protection. The rest, they said, should be left to Mother Nature. The next time I passed that spot, the bird was gone. I wonder about it every time I go by, because I became invested in it—because for one moment in time we shared life together, and the heart doesn’t easily forget.
David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland.
Photo by Silona Bonewald, used through Flickr Creative Commons.
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