It was a lovely morning the other day—the sky mostly clear, with just some wisps of cloud; the temperature around 70°, and a light breeze. It was warm enough early enough that I could sit on the front porch to do my reading and reflecting.
For a while, I looked at the rhododendron in bloom and listened to the morning bird chorus. The day’s soloist was a mourning dove, whose plaintive call provided a lamenting counterpoint to the other, more cheery early morning songs. He was perched in a pear tree near the porch. Then a robin raced across the street that tree, and the mourning dove, spooked, sped off. (Perhaps the robin’s goal: maybe he thought it was too nice a day for such a sad song.)
Mourning doves are ordinarily pokey birds, but they move fast when scared, which happens with astonishing frequency. At least some significant portion of the mourning dove population suffers from delayed reaction times, however. (a recessive gene?) Often we see a cluster of these birds gathered around the back feeder suddenly take off, started by a noise they didn’t like. Almost invariably, there are one or two that remain behind, standing on the ground with bewildered “Hey, where’d everybody go?” expressions. Sometimes these remnants straggle off, tagging along like unwanted younger siblings. Other times, they remain in place, pecking away at the feed on the ground.
Interestingly, we’ve never seen anything bad happen to the mourning doves that linger, suggesting that those that flew off had exaggerated the existential threat they had perceived. (Or mistaking the test of the Early Warning System for the real thing.) Sometimes I wonder if the doves that stay are actually the smart ones—the free-thinking lemming.
Then the whole pattern plays out again, and once more I see the befuddled expression of the birds left behind, and I conclude again that there couldn’t possibly be any deep wisdom guiding this reaction. ‘Twas pure dumb luck that saved the beast.
Perhaps there’s some comfort in that thought—we don’t need careful plans or clear analysis or brilliant foresight to survive all the challenges we face. Sometimes, we just need to be so slow to respond that the looming disaster is revealed as a humbug, and we can relax again. After all, how many times do we get three days' worth of warnings of "major snowstorms" developing that turn out to be light dustings. Meanwhile, the panicky ones who hit the stores have a lot of bread going stale.
If the best laid schemes o’ mice and men “gang aft a-gley,” perhaps we’re better off with no schemes—no plans. “Sha, na, na, na, na, let’s live for today.” After all , the lilies of the field do just fine, right?
Of course, Jesus neglected to point out that lilies have fewer needs that humans do, they take no responsibility for their children (eliminating still other needs), and they don’t harbor hopes to retire someday. That last consideration suggests that the cautionary tale of the grasshopper and the ant is a more relevant narrative than the story of the lilies’ coats, however glorious. (Ah, the difficulty of sorting out life lessons from stories!)
The lily metaphor also raises other questions. At base, there isn’t much difference between the lilies’ brief glory and the brief but brilliant life of Keats or the more self-destructive flameout of Hendrix. Not many of us would prefer those routes, however tempting the rushes of creativity realized or adulation enjoyed.
And so, many of us stay stuck on the ground, muddling through while others rush to and fro as they respond unnecessarily to threats that don’t exist, overreacting to turns of the Wheel of Fortune (the Renaissance one, not Pat and Vanna's). And we cling to the hope that our luck—or our prayers for protection—will see us through.
Of course, sometimes those threats are real, and we do need to respond quickly. A couple of weeks ago, a hawk nailed a pigeon in our backyard. Was the deceased a lingerer who perished as a result of not reacting quickly enough? Maybe. Maybe not. Might just have been bad luck—where he happened to be standing when the hawk began his attack.
Two days later, though, the hawk returned and attacked another group of pigeons. This time we saw the moment of contact. The hawk snatched one bird in flight, but that pigeon was fast enough to get away, leaving the hawk clutching nothing more than a few feathers and looking rather like Wile E. Coyote.
Sometimes, then, it pays to be nimble, just as sometimes it pays to stay where you are and keep pecking for food.
Maybe it can all best be explained by baseball. (What can’t?) Life is a matter of situational hitting. If you're leading off, or if the pitcher is having control problems, you want to take a few pitches. Make him prove that he can throw a strike. Is it a tight game in the late innings? Then just put the ball in play—preferably to the right side to move the runner along. Are the bases loaded early in the game, the wind is blowing out, and you have a chance to put away the struggling starter? Swing away, baby!
Maybe those mourning doves have more smarts than I gave them credit for. Maybe the ones that stay when there’s no danger are the same ones who take off when the hawk really is out prowling. They just have judgment born of experience, judgment they share with a veteran ballplayer.
They know about situational hitting.