We were in Castleton, hunting for props for the Feathered Seer. It was a cold, grey morning, but even so, the warm stone of the small Derbyshire town was inviting. We wandered through the streets, exploring hidden streets that we had not seen before and following the course of Peakshole Water, a tributary of the River Noe, that runs through the town.
The ducks were doing what ducks do best and performing their morning ablutions They are master contortionists when they are cleaning and preening their feathers, instinctively keeping them in perfect condition for their lives on water and in the air. Their faces always draw a smile… seeming to smile. They seem content to be no more and no less than what they are. We stopped for a while, watching and snapping away, under the eye of a curious robin.
We seldom go far without a robin showing up. The robin has earned its reputation for curiosity over the centuries that it has associated with humans. They are opportunists and, in Britain where they are traditionally welcomed and left unharmed, are very friendly birds. In other countries, they are more wary of Man, as we have hunted and killed them in times past. That knowledge has sunk in…they have learned from it and altered their behaviour accordingly.
My resident robin shows no fear at all and has been hopping up to the door since the first day I moved into my little flat. He was only a baby then and although they can be long-lived birds, they have a high mortality rate in their first year, so I have been glad to see him thriving through the winter. Instinct now brings the robins to where we turn the earth for them and put out food. Experience teaches them when it is safe to be even more curious and they will follow a friendly human around the garden and even eat from your hand.
As we left to continue our walk, a spaniel, finding a convenient hole in the wall, ignored his owner’s calls and dived gleefully through and into the water, just downstream of the little weir. We watched as he quietly crept to the perfect vantage point, before leaping out with obvious joy, to flush the ducks off the water. The spaniel was simply doing what comes naturally. We have bred and trained these dogs to flush out game for the hunters and, although most are now pampered pets, the purpose of their being still runs in their veins.
I wondered about that… The ducks were displaying a pre-programmed, instinctive behaviour that helps ensure their survival. The robin illustrated a learned behaviour in reaction to experience. But the dog was operating from something that was not quite either. The obedience we have trained into gun dogs was altogether absent, discarded in favour of choice. The chasing of the ducks by a dog who had obviously never even seen a gun, comes from a much deeper level than a simple, learned behaviour. And the absolute bliss with which it chased the ducks into the air was infectious.
While the ducks and the robin seemed content…the dog was bursting with a joy visible in every bound. The people who were around, on the other hand, displayed neither joy nor contentment. There were frazzled parents, arguing couples and bored-looking youngsters. I couldn’t help wondering if we have lost sight of something in our pursuit of the chimera of happiness. Happiness is an emotion like any other and, although we often treat it as a prize to be attained through dedication to a goal, it is a fleeting thing. No emotion is a permanent fixture. Joy is not an emotion, but rather a state of being that underlies whatever emotion we feel. It lifts happiness to the heights and sustains us through the darker times… yet once found, it is ever-present.
I thought of those people I know who exude joy…and they share a common trait. All of them have, like the dog, chosen to embrace what they see as the purpose of their being. For each of them it is different on the surface, and yet, when you get to know them and talk with them, you find that they see that purpose as one and the same thing, manifested in a myriad different ways. Whether they call it service to a higher purpose, compassion, kindness or any one of a thousand different names… it all comes back to Love.
It is often our first memory…and often our last. We spend a lifetime pursuing love in one aspect or another, from the tentative teenage years when we seek approval for the identity we are forming, to the mating of later years. We seek it in our friendships, from our children and siblings… even from our pets. To feel that we are loved seems a basic human need. We feel that if we are loved we will know happiness…and while that may be true, that happiness is never a constant. Those who refuse or deny love a place in their lives as well as those who grasp at every fragment they can find, are deemed misfits within our society. To give love, unconditionally and without thought of return is counted as one of the purest human emotions. I have often wondered if our human loves are but a reflection of something higher… allowing us to embrace, as much as we are able, something too vast for us to encompass. Maybe choosing love is the purpose of our being.