Birds and Planes

This past weekend, I went to the park for a little while and sat by the lake. I took a book with me, and my laptop hoping I would force myself to write because it helps me make sense of my life. I wasn’t really paying attention to the water or the sky, but this man was there, taking it all in, living in the moment like I wish I was able to do. He had just turned to leave when he heard a splash. 

“I just missed something awesome, didn’t I?” He said. 

“I don’t know,” I said. “I wasn’t watching.”

So he stood there, waiting, to see if whatever awesome thing he missed would happen again. After a few minutes, he pointed out a large bird circling in the sky. “That’s a peregrine,” he told me (full disclosure– I have no idea if he’s right). I watched as it flapped it’s wings to gather speed, then seemed to glide on the currents of the wind, before making a nosedive into the water with the splashing sound we’d heard before. Almost as soon as the bird hit the water, it resumed flapping its wings again, climbing high into the sky, and finding the pockets of air smooth enough to glide again. “Wow,”he said, a look of pure amazement on his face, “That just made my day.” 

I watched the bird for a while longer, and the process repeated itself a few times. What must that feel like, I wondered; the working, working, working, then trusting the wind and yourself enough to know when you can stop striving so much, and trust that you won’t fall, you’ll glide. What must it feel like to nosedive into the water and know that you’re safe because you’ll immediately be able to climb back up to the same heights? What must it be like to view the crash as part of the adventure, refreshing even, rather than something to be feared?

A few days later, I was driving home and came by the airport (not my usual route) because traffic was a beast. I saw a plane descending in preparation for landing, and I thought about how different the flight pattern is in comparison to a bird. The plane is loud, clunky, rumbling. So many moving pieces have to work together, just so, to avoid calamity. The weather can’t be too unpredictable. The plane has to adhere to precise, structured movements and then carefully plan its landings. It doesn’t have the ability to nosedive into the water and then immediately climb back up. Sometimes there’s turbulence in flight. Sometimes there’s engine trouble. Whereas the bird can trust itself to do what comes naturally, the plane has to work oh so hard to be a poor imitation. It needs at least one pilot, maybe two, amiable weather conditions, plenty of fuel, mechanical perfection, and even an on-flight snack service with overpriced drinks and M&Ms. I found myself, at first, thinking less of the plane for being so clunky and needy.

But a thought struck me. The bird is carrying no one. The bird is existing as it was meant to exist. Living for itself. Eating, nesting, sleeping, flying. That is the bird’s existence. The plane is carrying literally hundreds of people. It has a purpose. It might not do the job of flying so effortlessly, but still the job is done. And it’s miraculous. A little more than 100 years ago, it wasn’t even possible for humans to experience flight at all, and now it’s so common it’s almost routine. It allows us to go anywhere in the world for the price of a ticket. 

I thought about how my comparison of the bird and the plane reflect my beliefs about myself. How I focus in on the why’s and the how’s and the technique, and criticize myself when I’m clunky or needy or struggling to do what I see comes naturally to so many other people. How I refuse sometimes to acknowledge the obvious truth that, regardless of how they accomplish it, both the bird and the plane are flying. The bird might be more majestic about it, but the plane is carrying a load that the bird could never manage. 

Maybe everything is going smoothly for you right now, and you’re coasting along living life like the peregrine, or maybe you’re sputtering and struggling, and hoping that the storm holds off so that you don’t crash and burn. But don’t be so bogged down in the details that you miss the bigger picture. The details say someone else is making life seem effortless while you’re floundering just to survive. The bigger picture tells you, “Don’t be so critical. You’re both flying.”

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