On Thursday, our mountain ash tree was burdened with bright red berries. Globular blobs of berries hung at the end of every branch, weighing the branches down, bending the twigs.
By Saturday, the tree stood bare against a grey sky.
The Bohemian waxwings had returned. Every year, about this time, they come back. Maybe the timing has something to do with the birds’ migration patterns; maybe it depends on fermentation within the berries themselves. Whatever the reason, the waxwings show up in their thousands.
They start as a distant smudge on the sky. The smudge grows larger, becomes a coiling, roiling, boiling ball of dust motes, displaying the infinite possibilities of fractal math. And then whoosh, the birds arrive in a mighty flitter-flutter of wings, ravenous as a plague of locusts.
They land on the tree as a single body. They gorge. They leave as again like a single body, all at once. They circle. They perch at the top of our oak tree, so many the tree looks as if it had come out in leaf. Then they whoosh back to the mountain ash. They gorge. Then they’re gone again. For half an hour….
My human mind assumes they must have a leader. One of those birds must be issuing commands. Providing leadership. That tree, over there, let’s go! That’s enough, time to move on! All together now….
But apparently it doesn’t work that way. A flock of waxwings has no leader. Nor does a school of herring, a herd of bison, a stadium of soccer fans.
Large assemblies of autonomous and independent living creatures seem to follow two simple algorithms.
First principle: stay close to your neighbour.
Second principle: don’t crowd your neighbour.
It’s that simple. Attraction and repulsion may look like opposites, but they work together for every member’s benefit.
Those two principles keep the mass cohesive against external attack. At the same time, they allow individuals to move freely within the mass, from the centre to the edge, from the front to the back, creating those constantly shifting patterns, without having to break away from the community.
Yin and yang, in a social context.
I don’t pretend to understand how it works for birds and fish – I’m only human, after all – but I can see that it does. Even among us humans.
Marketers count on it. If they can persuade a few individuals to nibble the berries on a their tree, the masses will follow.
Obviously, politicians exploit the herd mentality. Convince enough people that the tide has turned, and the rest won’t want to be stranded on the beach.
Paradoxically, rescue workers fear the same reaction. If there’s a fire in a theatre, for example, most of the deaths will result from everyone trying to get out the same exit that everyone else is headed for.
It can be costly to stay with the herd. Especially if you’re sure you can see a better tree, over there, somewhere. It can be costly to choose an independent path. Especially if the wolves are out to get you.
The challenge – for individuals and for leaders – is to keep those basic principles of attraction and repulsion in balance.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Vulnerability seems to be something we can all identify with. Lots of letters about last week’s column.
James West had a similar experience: “Your observations were timely. My next door neighbors' dog, Dakota, died on Monday morning. We had a similar conversation on Tuesday. Dakota had been a rescue dog for his owner June. Dakota introduced June to Ron and they married soon afterwards, a second marriage for both. I would have never known that back story had I not stopped by for a cup of coffee. They were mourning for dear member of the family. It was an honor to be invited into that conversation.”
I called “being there” in someone’s time of vulnerability a privilege. Tom Watson agreed: “Indeed, it is a privilege to be there. There are times, though, when privilege isn't the first thing that comes to mind. Imagine being called to a home following a tragedy. You know everyone there so well. Events of the last few hours have hit so hard that they make no sense -- not to the family, and also not to you -- but you're the one person in the room who is supposed to try and hold things steady and stable so that people can grope their way through the pain that shrouds them. What to do? What to say? How to answer the ‘Why?’
“Truth is, it isn't words or deeds or answers that are required; it's simply being there. That's all that matters.
“It reminds me of a story about a young priest who was called to the home of friends. The friends' little child had been playing on the lawn, crawled onto the driveway just as the father in the family backed the car out of the garage and ran over the little one. The priest felt so badly for his friends, and so inadequate in his role, that he could do nothing but sit there and weep, mumble a prayer, and leave. A few days later he apologized to the friends for not being able to give them any help at all. They replied, ‘Oh, but you did. You gave us yourself, and in that you gave us everything you had.’”
The same for Wayne Irwin: “I see pastoring as such a privilege -- to be permitted to accompany someone though a contingency of life.”
Heather Sandilands wrote, “It's true to my experiences also. It is a privilege. And even if we only mourn those with whom we have a caring relationship, what gifts come wrapped in tears of grief. To have Loved that much!
“Only those who are open to vulnerability and loss and the pain and gift it brings understand why we cry during ‘Castaway’ when Wilson [the volleyball!] goes adrift.”
Isabel Gibson called the tale of my meeting with Derek, “Lovely. And true -- always an added benefit.
“Years ago, when my father went into a surgery that he had, at best, a 50% chance of surviving, the minister came to sit with the family as we waited. She didn't say much. She just stayed with us as we did all those family things, dysfunctional and otherwise. No comments, no apparent judgements.
“And when they wheeled him out, alive, she smiled, and went on to the next.
“Being with others in their vulnerability without trying to fix them or their situation is an amazing gift.”
And the column reminded an unnamed reader of “an appointment to meet with someone for the 5th Step in their AA Twelve Step Program. It calls for the ‘stepper’ to recount to God, to themselves, and to one other person, their inventory of wrong doing. This is about the healing power of vulnerability. I have seen transformation as folks release stories, sometimes long-ago stories previously locked up by guilt. It is a vividly spiritual experience.”
I wondered how Psalm 1 might sound, if I shifted the focus from personal faith to a business context.
1. Happy are those who have inner integrity.
2 They are not pushed around by opinion polls;
They listen to advice from all sides,
but they choose their own course.
They consult constantly with God.
3 A spring of deep wisdom bubbles up within them;
It never dries up.
4 Most of us are more like dandelion fluff;
we change our direction with every puff of wind.
5 It is no wonder our words are not heard.
Without that wellspring of wisdom,
we are no more than dust,
waiting to return to dust.
6 Fads and fashions will pass away,
but the ways of wisdom will go on forever.
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at www.singhallelujah.ca
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,”an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://www.churchwebcanada.ca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, www.traditionaliconoclast.com
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; firstname.lastname@example.org to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org