The Hummingbird, Part Two.

I want to be a hummingbird. I am doing whatever I can. 

Yesterday, I wrote this piece, about a small hummingbird dropping a single drop of water onto a fire, one drop at a time. It’s a metaphor about injustice and fear, written in response to the terrorist activities in Paris and Lebanon. It’s about humans trying to do “whatever they can,” even if that action is minuscule and small. Even if it seems worthless.

Yesterday, one of my most trusted friends read it.

“It’s great,” he said. “It’s well-written, and it’s beautiful. You did a nice job.”
“…But… ” I said, sensing a hesitancy in his tone.
“But,” he said. “But….

“… Do you get to call yourself the hummingbird if your contribution is just writing the blog post? That seems … easy. Like changing your facebook picture to that flag — you know, well-intentioned, a sign of support, but ultimately — kind of a pass. You’re not really doing much. You’re just — I dunno, displaying. There’s a difference.”

“I mean,” I say, knowing that he’s basically right. “I included those links at the bottom of the piece about what we can do to help Syrian refugees, or how to donate to Parisian Red Cross –”

“I know,” he said, nodding. “But it’s …. it’s missing this other, really important point.

Most of us want to be the hummingbird. But what if we don’t even know where to find the river?

What is it that any of us can actually do?” 

**

It’s stuck with me all day, that question. What is it that any of us can actually do?

I am not a doctor or a nurse or an EMT or an ambulance driver. I am not a politician, a lawmaker, a diplomat, or an advisor. I am not a rabbi, a priest, or a spiritual advisor. I am just me.

I am a writer and a teacher, and a friend and an artist. But I’m all of those things in Philadelphia, in America. And while I live in a country of people who are increasingly surging towards extremest ends of a political spectrum, a country that stands increasingly divided on issues of politics, religion, ethics, and morality, in my day-to-day life I am surrounded by people who mostly think like me, mostly look like me, mostly believe what I believe. I have a hard time understanding how something as destructive and violent and brutally senseless as those attacks could take place, because I’m surrounded by people who are equally shocked and horrified, people who feel as I feel.

The human beings who pulled the triggers on those machine guns are humans, as you and I are. They experience pain, as I do, as we do. And I can’t begin to imagine what sequence of events in their life led to that decision to walk into a public place, strapped with explosives and carrying a machine gun. How many times those angry men were taught to hate. How many hundreds or thousands of times they were taught that to incite fear is to wield power.

Those angry men were children once, too.

I can speak to the sequence of events in my life that led me to where I am now: parents who loved me, a childhood spent reading books in library seats, a college education, a battle with depression where words pulled me up and over and through. I can try to imagine the opposite: parents who were distant and uncaring, a fundamentalist upbringing where critical thinking was shunned, a lack of education, a promise of a better future. I don’t have to imagine too hard: it’s the story of thousands of people worldwide. I am fortunate. Many others are not.

And I think about the number of tiny moments that I’ve received racist or Islamophobic emails from older relatives and clicked “delete,” rather than do the work of attempting to combat fear with empathy and compassion. I think about the number of times I’ve just stopped engaging with people on Facebook because I’d rather not spend my morning telling a stranger on the internet that their speech is, in fact, hateful or ignorant; it never seems to make much of a difference, after all, and I’d rather spend my day doing literally anything else.

But.

If I am only sharing my words with those who already agree with me, I’m not a hummingbird after all. I’m just a peacock. 

There’s a stunning piece of journalism in The New Yorker today, detailing the story of a young woman named Megan Phelps-Roper. She’s twenty-nine, about my age, with blue eyes and creamy white skin that looks a lot like mine.

She’s the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. She was one of the young people on the picket lines outside of military funerals, blaming the deaths of young soldiers on America’s acceptance of homosexuality, shouting “God hates fags!” at mourning spouses and relatives. She grew up with these beliefs, and never had much of a reason to question them: her entire world was shaped around her family’s shared conviction that outsiders were evil and wicked, and her purpose on Earth was to preach this truth so that those wicked outsiders could repent.

Here’s Megan in 2010:

In 2009, Megan joined Twitter as the church’s mouthpiece with the outside world. The article kicks off with this sample tweet, posted on World Aids Day: ““Thank God for AIDS! You won’t repent of your rebellion that brought His wrath on you in this incurable scourge, so expect more & worse!”

Here’s Megan today.

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The article details the years-long journey that Megan went through, culminating in her leaving the church in 2012. Twitter exposed her to the outside world, to others who treated her with empathy and humanity, who took the time to question and challenge her beliefs, to poke holes in her logic without alienating her so much that she stopped listening. Her shift in belief feels agonizingly incremental, almost glacially slow. But a Twitter interaction with a stranger — then another, then another — caused her to think critically about one belief. Then another, and then another, until eventually her entire belief system came toppling down. Until she began to see the “others” not as wicked demons, and not as sinners, and not as enemies. Until she began to see others as humans, just like her.

Megan and her younger sister Grace had once held signs screaming, “Your Rabbi is a Whore.” After leaving the church, they were invited to speak to a Jewish conference, later staying with an Orthodox family for nearly a month. They picketed pride parades and gay events for decades. Recently, they attended a drag show and danced.

And what landed with me about Megan’s story is this: the tweets mocking her didn’t change her mind. In fact, it only made her conviction stronger. The tweets that responded to her hatred and intolerance with MORE hatred and intolerance only increased her resolve.

But an Orthodox Jewish dude living in Israel tweeting to her about “Gossip Girl” made a point of connection. And another, and another, until Megan was talking to this guy not as “other,” but as “person.” Not as “Jew,” but as “David.”

**

The people who pulled the triggers on those guns are people, too. And I don’t have all the answers for how to reach them. Nobody does.

But I’m gonna make a guess at how to start combatting those things in your own communities. Here’s what I think you can do, hummingbirds.

When you see something that responds to fear and violence with more fear and violence, call it out.
When you’re tempted to respond to hatred with intolerance, check yourself.
When you hear somebody conflate ‘Muslim’ with ‘Terrorist,’ explain the difference. And even though you might be angry or frustrated about it, explain the difference in a way that’s polite and not condescending.

Fact-check your news sources before sharing misinformation and fear.

Think about attending the services of a faith community that is not your own. (I did this in college and it changed my perspective in ways that I cannot adequately describe). Sit in the back row of a church or a temple, just for an hour. Look at the faces around you. There will be someone, inevitably, who reminds you of your cousin, sister, uncle, best friend. If you are welcomed, allow yourself to feel welcome.

When you hear someone who is not like you share their experiences, listen. (I struggle with this one. I always want to jump in with my own thoughts. I’m getting better. It’s worth it).

Don’t block that person on Twitter or Facebook when you are frustrated and appalled that they could believe something filled with hate. Challenge them with empathy. Engage them with love. Take a break when you become too frustrated to continue. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

It’s just tiny drops on a raging fire. It’s not much.

But I want to do something. 

I am doing whatever I can.

 

**

Did you like this post? Help me keep writing. 

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24 thoughts on “The Hummingbird, Part Two.

  1. Pingback: The Hummingbird in the Jungle. | I Am Begging My Mother Not To Read This Blog

  2. Hate only breeds more hate. Love is the only way to respond…and it’s quite often the most difficult when you want to initially rage against the injustices of the world.

    Your post is beautiful, stunning and through provoking. I hope all your readers, and more, take it to heart and attempt to be the hummingbird and not the peacock!

  3. YAY! Good for you! Well written, and a great metaphor. (hummingbird versus peacock). Thought provoking, and well stated. I wish I could cut and paste the whole thing into my FB feed. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Reblog: The Hummingbird, Part Two. | From zero to zygote

  5. Tiny acts of kindness & love are really the only way we CAN change the world, I think. So well written, as always.

    Also, I love this suggestion SO much: “Think about attending the services of a faith community that is not your own. ….allow yourself to feel welcome.” YES. I think sometimes I take for granted the fact that I was part of a Unitarian Universalist church from K-12, and we spent every other Sunday in 8th grade attending a different church’s sermon. We celebrated Simchat Torah at a synagogue, attended Sunday services with Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, learned about Baha’i and Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam. The next weekend, we’d discuss the similarities and differences, what we liked, what we had questions about. It was an incredible experience for a 13-year-old to go through.

    My favorite part is that they were all beautiful, and they were all, essentially, the same.

  6. I connect with this on every level! I really needed to read this today. Thank you so much for addressing such a heavy topic with gentleness and kindness without belittling the issue or the people involved.

  7. you really are quite wonderful – such wonderful writing as always – powerful and evocative and so moving. Peace can only break out when each one of us is at peace internally. Every moment to moment of peace you feel allows anything that is not peace to disappear. Eventually, there is only peace… and then your peace is palpable to others who then want that peace for themselves. And you can keep this peace in the face of anything. It takes time and attention and forgiving oneself and starting over – again and again and again… and it only gets easier and more beautiful and lighter and… doesn’t this sound like a better option than what we’ve been doing? An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind – I don’t know who said that but it’s true. Let’s do something different – one hummingbird drop at a time…

  8. Pingback: Je suis furieux. | ERROR 404: Comfort Zone Not Found

  9. What an amazing post. Thank you for writing this. I’m so glad I stumbled onto it. I’ve been thinking about the recent terror attacks a lot and wondering what to do. Donating money is good but it didn’t feel like enough. It never does and I am constantly frustrated when I contact organizations to offer aid and all they want is the one commodity I have little of and that little I prefer to use to help someone eat a meal who might have gone hungry without my donation. Thank you for offering other ways to be a hummingbird dropping water on the flames.

  10. Thank you for this post. It is so incredibly inspiring and I agree with every word here. The task is daunting, though. I went over to a FB friend’s feed right after I read this – one of the ones who wants to screen refugees coming into our country – or preferably to keep them out entirely, and I could not think of the best way to write a loving counter-argument without sounding too “preachy” or self-righteous. It is so very hard, sometimes, to argue love when people keep shouting hate. The shouting makes me want to walk the other way and avoid the hateful rather than engage them. Especially since I’ve ingrained it in my head that they likely won’t listen, they likely won’t see my side, and their natural reaction is more likely to be to dig further into their own belief system. I’ve seen it happen too many times. I guess I just wish our natural human tendencies trended more toward open-mindedness rather than defensive fear.

  11. Very thought provoking. Makes me want to run out and make some sort of small difference right this second. I struggle with impatience though, I want to see quick results. But of course, such things take time. I’ll have to keep reminding myself of that. 🙂

  12. Pingback: The Hummingbird, Part Two. | homeandlovingit

  13. I often find it hard to express in words why I disagree with hateful thinking. It’s easy to get angry and make things worse. Blogs like these are helpful because they help put into words what I’m already thinking. So maybe next time I encounter someone who’s mind I’d love to change I can use a couple of those words, stashed away in my head, and put them to good use ❤

  14. Thank you! I connected a lot with both these posts – I want to be a hummingbird, but I also feel like the world is too big for me to really do anything. So the metaphor was already encouraging, and the follow-up only compounded that encouragement that yes, I should do whatever I can.

  15. Thank you for writing this. I commute to work on the Paris Metro and the feel in the air is a mixture of tension, alertness, compassion and politeness. Parisians are not giving up their hearts to rage, and your article speaks the power of responding to angry minds with peaceful words and a calm heart. I’d like to share your essay on my FB page….is it possible to attach an image that promotes peace and kindness? I’d love to share your message.

  16. Pingback: Wordy Weekend Links and Cute Mandalas | Fine Art, Calligraphy, and Coloring Pages

  17. The hummingbird could go to the water with the knowledge that the water is there. As I see it the point is not to start out by knowing what you can do, but to start out by doing what you know.

    The river for us right now may be as simple as not allowing people around us to make, unquestioned or unchecked, easy and socially acceptable Islamophobic jokes. It may seam like drops of water against a fire, but it was a large and important part of what it took to make space for the LBGT community in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

    The hummingbird reminds me of the a poem from the preamble to the American Mineworkers Association Constitution written in 1863.

    Step by step the longest march
    Can be won, can be won.
    Many stones can form an arch,
    Singly none, singly none.
    And by union what we will
    Can be accom­plished still
    Drops of water turn a mill,
    Singly none, singly none.

    1863. A lot of good has come about since then. A lot of fires beaten back.

  18. Such beautiful writing and with so much passion too! I think it’s the biggest problem within society: we aren’t willing to understand each other’s differences. Just because people don’t believe the same things, doesn’t mean that we have to hate each other and put one another down. As a Christian myself with beliefs that many would actively disagree with, I’m called to love as Christ does and I would be so busy on social media if I ranted about everything that I disagreed with. Thanks for sharing this perspective though, many folks need to practice these things! 🙂

  19. You have wonderful insight and write so beautifully. I love your posts. I shared one on FB but I don’t know if that is okay with you or not so I will wait for you to reply on that before I share anymore. I mentioned your name and blog address. I think you’re doing a great job hummingbird! Thanks!

  20. Just read The New Yorker article. I am sooo behind the times!!!! In my head, I when I hear or read the words “The New Yorker”, I see the magazine with the beautifully illustrated covers. I see now there is an online version with video content! Thank you for this post! 🙂 It gave me hope and I needed that today!!!! 🙂 Megan’s story reminds me of The Kite Runner. Have you read that novel? Both stories (one fiction and one non-fiction) tell the story of someone who is able to change and show kindness to others. We need more stories like that. I’d watch that over the news. I tried to find apps that publish good news instead of the rubbish on TV these days but had little luck. So appreciative of this message of hope, Hummingbird! 🙂

  21. Pingback: People Do Change | Shine Bright Like a Smile

  22. Pingback: The Hummingbird, Part Two. | Unchain the tree

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