In a mindless moment, I did one of those Facebook quizzes. You know the kind, it purports to “analyze” your profile to tell you something deep about your soul, while leeching personal information. I needed a moment to let something important for work percolate and this quiz did not force me select the least evil from an unattractive palette of colors or choose between bourbon and champagne (while that is a regular choice for me, I prefer not to limit my options before 5 p.m.). It could hardly be called a quiz at all since all I had to do was click a button and wait while it popped up with answer as to which bird my soul most resembled.
It pronounced love bird as my bird-soul match, with this description: “You’re a lovely person. You’re warm and full of affection and love for all of the people who deserve your love. You’re a bundling ball of positivity.” I laughed. Out loud. Not because I’m not warm and loving. Most days I am, though “bundling ball of positivity” is only one of the two extremes I inhabit. I laughed because I once had a love bird and it was the meanest bird I have ever met.
I no longer remember the bird’s name, but I remember well its reign of terror. It started on Super Bowl Sunday 1985. My dad and some friends were watching the game, a ridiculous shame considering we lived next to the ocean in Hawaii and our term there was halfway over. Like I would prove to be every Super Bowl Sunday since then, I was bored. And mopey. My friends were at parties, my parents occupied, my brother not sure he wanted to be friends that day. So, I opened the door to go explore and standing on the pathway was a love bird.
By way of background, I rescued every stray animal I could find during these days. At one point, we were up to four cats who were forced to remain outdoors (we already had an indoor cat) and an abandoned baby bird, who unfortunately died the first day of school the September before the love bird came onto the scene. We’d surrendered the cats and I felt an empty rescuer hole that ached to be filled. Enter the unsuspecting love bird.
I had not seen a wild love bird before and I suspected it was someone’s pet. I immediately called for reinforcements, i.e., my brother and a butterfly net. Perhaps a neighbor kid, too. (It’s been 30+ years, so I apologize if I exclude crediting anyone in this debacle who truly deserves to be named.) We managed to catch it, quite easily, and promptly put it in a cage, which we’d just happened to have handy since we had another avian captive in the house (this one a cockatiel and procured from a local pet shop).
Like we did with Bill, the cockatiel, we would let the love bird out. Only, unlike Bill, who was docile and acquiescing, the love bird would not want to go back in to the cage. The love bird didn’t preen our hair like Bill did. It didn’t imitate my laugh. No, that sucker bit us every chance it got. It drew blood multiple times from multiple people. I remember one particular time wherein my brother, two neighbors and I had donned ourselves in various protective garments (such as my dad’s flight jacket and helmet) and armed ourselves with nets and tennis rackets in an attempt to get the bird back in the cage (I do not recall why he’d been let out, but at that point it was considered in our house akin to letting Hannibal Lecter roam freely. There would be casualties).
I took it as a personal rejection by the bird. Couldn’t it see that I had rescued it? Rescued from what, though? From a horrific life of abundant food in a land of abundant sunshine and glorious trees? Couldn’t it see that a caged, safe life was infinitely preferable to whatever heights it might reach on its own, or possible death?
As an adult, I can see the true failing was not the bird’s lack of appreciation for its gilded cell, but rather my own need to “save” a creature from its innate desires and preferred trajectory simply because I could not see any other way. My imagination had failed in the shadow of my towering good intentions. I knew what was best for it. And I was wrong.
If I were that bird, having once tasted freedom, I, too, would have scratched, bitten, and made a race for the door. I might have also given my fellow captive a giant bird middle finger, or whatever their equivalent of it would be. Bill received a lot of love and he’d never known any other life, but a bird is made to fly, not to sit and preen a little girl’s hair, as adorable as that may be to said little girl.
I think about this love bird situation now in many ways, one of which is in terms of what it means to be a good ally. So many of us well-meaning white, middle- to upper-class, straight, cis, non-disabled people called to work in social justice are not only filled with righteous indignation of behalf of those oppressed, we are also filled with solutions as to how to fix said oppression. These solutions necessarily come from a wellspring directly connected to the privileged lives we’ve led. The solutions we propose directly correlate to the lives we’ve known and the norms we’ve accepted. We want to offer a gilded cage because it is what we know, but we fail to acknowledge that self-determination, while it may be fraught with perceived pitfalls and danger (in our humble opinions), is the only true justice.
We all hold some area of expertise, maybe more than one. Too often, I see it wielded as a weapon against those who don’t share that knowledge. Facebook is riddled with posts that effectively say, “If this person/you wasn’t/weren’t such a dumbass, you would know X and act accordingly and then your life wouldn’t be so miserable.” This sentiment seems amplified when the recipient of said knowledge has a mental illness or lacks the financial resources of the “knowledgeable” person, or simply isn’t presenting the demand for justice in a way the hearer finds palatable.
What we can forget, myself included, is that our knowledge isn’t whole or perfect. It’s the sliver we’ve gained through our personal experience and exposure to a particularized background. There are other lenses through which we can view a situation. For example, going back the bird, I saw myself at the time as a rescuer of a distressed animal and the actions I took were those that any true animal lover would (how my parents tolerated my often misguided righteousness, I’ll never know). The animal lover in me now would never keep a bird. Same underlying emotion and motivation – love and concern – vastly different outcome based on a new perspective and knowledge gained.
Now, any time I have that fiery impulse to rescue, I stop. I ask myself what the perceived harm is, whether my perception might be lacking some key nugget of information, and what solution I’m proposing. If that solution has me front and center as a white knight, I get off my steed and ask more questions: what skills I really have to bring to the table, how might I reasonably be able to help, and, most importantly, who I can listen to so that I can learn more?
There are times when my particularized knowledge and experience can legitimately help someone. There are times when my privilege proves useful to another. I find it helpful in those moments to ask myself why I am sharing whatever I am called upon to share in that moment. There is a lot I don’t know in this world and I find that whenever someone is teaching me something, if they do so from a place of superiority, I won’t learn it. I will learn to dislike said person, though, and distrust them. They don’t even have to say anything overt. The energy of their motivation flows through and it’s either clear or murky as sewer water.
Each time we judge ourselves as knowing more than another, we’re offering up a sweet taste of our own personal sludge. We do the same each time we judge another because their idea of what is true doesn’t match our own. We live in such a magnificently rich world, it seems entirely within the realm of possibility that more than one perspective can be true.* That someone doesn’t want to live in our version of the best life possible doesn’t make that person wrong. What we offer might seem like a cage. If we want to get to a place of unity, we need to accept that the concept requires a coming together of different pieces. We are only a piece of the knowledge, a piece of the solution. We are not the solution ourselves (not to mention that a solution to society’s problems often takes a different way of thinking than that used to create the problem in the first place).
I will remember my love bird, then, not as vicious, bloodthirsty menace who refused to graciously accept the help (read: captivity) I offered. Instead, I will remember that time in my life as a challenge to do better by listening more and stretching myself to accept more possibilities about what is in the good of all than only those immediately visible to me.
*Caveat: Having finally seen Star Wars Episode 7 yesterday and, therefore, having acutely thought about the imbalance in favor of pure evil depicted, I find it incumbent upon myself to state the obvious: if someone is planning on massacring any number of people (be it one or millions), that is clearly wrong. I have yet to evolve to a place where I can see another side to that story and I would do everything I could to stop such action (or so I believe). This commentary stems from seeing a number of well-meaning people who have the power to do so act on behalf of a group in a way that expressly deviates from action that group has stated would be to its benefit, or seeing people criticize movements such as Black Lives Matter not for the message they present but rather how they do so.