My wife and I love birds. Perhaps we enjoy them too much.
I say that because our backyard includes four different feeders. They are different types, and appeal to a variety of species. (We also have a hummingbird feeder on the other side of the house, just outside my office window.)
Blessed as we are to live in the Puget Sound area, we see a variety of avifauna.* Nearly every day we see doves, robins, sparrows, chickadees, juncos, finches, Steller’s jays, thrushes, flickers, towhees, red-winged blackbirds and hummingbirds. Oh, and starlings too, that are the only birds our border collie chases (because of their darting taunts, I suppose).
Occasionally we have goldfinches, quail, band-tailed pigeons, woodpeckers, and various other guests I’m not quite positive about. In the sky, and on the nearby shoreline, we see many seagulls, mallards, great blue herons, Canadian geese, and—particularly during the current season—bald eagles.
As I said, we are definitely blessed to enjoy so many lovely creatures surrounding us. But this post isn’t really about birds; it concerns a particular bird who has recently joined our community. It is (I’m pretty confident) a Brewer’s blackbird.
He boasts magnificent sheen on his jet black plumage. Sadly, though, he appears to be quite unhappy.
His unhappiness is due to unrequited love. A tragic condition shared by many human beings. You see, each morning he comes to a bird bath near our bedroom window where he can perch and view his own reflection on the glass.
Seeing a potential companion, he does a sort of courting dance, which the reflection presumably imitates. He bumps into the glass, often repeatedly. Despite his zealous efforts, he inevitably ends up disappointed. And yet, there he is, the next morning, delighted that his friend is willing to give him another chance.
We Are Like the Blackbird
One recent morning I awoke to his antics, and it struck my waking mind that that poor bird’s futile efforts are a metaphor of our lives.
We perceive idealized reflections of ourselves, so flawless we become enraptured. We think of ourselves as the most important thing in the world. In a sense, we begin to believe the universe revolves around us.
I remembered the Greek story of Narcissus. It is a myth offering many insights, not solely the dangers of unbridled self-love. It was because of his contempt for others that Narcissus was cursed to see in a pool a reflection of the only person he considered worthy of his attention. At first, when he fell “in love,” he did not recognize the image as being himself. The tragedy leads to his destruction.⁑
We too, I think as a I watch that small bird vainly striving to find fulfillment in an illusion, experience only disappointment and ultimate despair.
For days Narcissus knelt by the pool, hopelessly in love with the beauty of his own reflection. Before his eyes he saw the image grow pale and thin, weep tears, stretch out its arms, and look at him. Still he could not hear it, could not touch it, no matter how he implored.
While reflecting on this subject, I found a couple of articles I recommend to those desiring to ponder it further. And, next week we will consider other birds, from another perspective—their use in a Renaissance work of fiction, included by C.S. Lewis in his volume from Oxford History of English Literature.
“C.S. Lewis on the Bible: Myth, Truth, Fact, and Genesis” explores C.S. Lewis’ contribution to comprehending the complexity inherent in mythology. He cites the simplistic interpretation of the story of Narcissus as a misleading reduction of the myth’s deeper message.
“Understanding and Dealing with Today’s Culture of Narcissism” notes how C.S. Lewis offered a non-narcissian prescription for addressing the “hungry soul.”
“Self-Centeredness Isn’t Narcissism’s Central Problem,” discusses the myth and the culture of Narcissism in which we are immersed. Author Angela Franks, a professor at St. John’s Seminary, then moves into a brilliant discussion of Till We Have Faces, which C.S. Lewis considered his finest book.
C. S. Lewis’s unjustly neglected rewriting of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, in his novel Till We Have Faces, provides a profound insight into the narcissistic spectrum. . . .
So it appears [in Lewis’ myth] that the beloved of the gods is not only the beautiful and wise Psyche, but also the tormented and ugly Orual. In the divine plan, the hideous older half-sister suffers in order to aid the beautiful maiden, but the beautiful maiden also goes through the greatest trials in order to purify Orual. The god, it appears, is willing to sacrifice his beloved in order to be united to the one who hates him. “What’s mine is yours!” Psyche and the god proclaim to Orual, but this time not in vengeance; in Lewis’s new myth, just retribution gives way to undeserved love.
To discourage our obsidian-feathered friend from squandering his brief life in pursuit of his own reflection, my wife and I just placed some decals on the window. It appears to have worked.
Would that our own echoes of Narcissus were addressed so simply.
* Don’t feel bad if this word is unfamiliar to you, don’t feel bad. I didn’t know it before I wrote this post. It means “the birds of a particular region, habitat, or geological period.”
⁑ The versions of this myth end in different ways, ranging from his divine transformation into a flower, to his despair and suicide.
11 thoughts on “A Lesson Taught by a Blackbird”
I haven’t read that mythology in years, yet you’ve reminded me that I accepted the superficial conclusions of the story of Narcissus. How interesting to consider it in greater depths. ;)
I’m in the same club. My familiarity with the Greek and Roman myths has been based on my high school reading of them. Lots more there to plumb.
It’s made somewhat more challenging by the fact that many of the legends have more than one version.
Which makes me wish I knew the language, but it’s all Greek to me. :/
Well, I’m certainly not reading them in their original languages either. :)
We had a cardinal taken with his own image in a window high above our front door, fluttering up and down on the ledge, batting the window as he did so. I worried he’d harm his wings. After a number of days he finally gave up on the bird-in-the-window. We humans often take longer to give up on our idealized perceptions of who we are and what we “deserve” from the universe. Our little bird-brain friends are smarter than we are.
What a wonderful insight into the essence of this post. Thanks, Nancy.
Insightful. Cults (which often claim to promote self-awareness, self-improvement, and self-actualization) frequently attract those whose self-esteem is damaged. The narcissism of cult leaders is, of course, profoundly abusive.
You are absolutely right, on both counts.
I’ve met the leaders of several small cults… not the ones people hear of, but the small ones (with five or ten devotees) where people offer slavish obedience to the leader… who for all intents and purposes functions as their lord.
There is also a very malevolent spirituality at work in these contexts.
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Spot on! I feel bad for your little bird friend. And for us, although we should really know better than to fall in love with our own reflections.
Yes, we should know better, shouldn’t we? You see the sour fruit of self-infatuation every time you turn on the news, or open a newspaper.
As for the bird… compassion for God’s smallest creatures is an evidence of noble character.