A bird in the bush?

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The dog has just eaten her dinner for the first time in days. I have not been worried. There is a pattern to her behaviour that I perfectly understand…though precisely how she arrived at her conclusions escapes me. We had a visitor over New Year. Whenever this particular guest comes to stay, Ani’s food bowl remains untouched for the duration of the visit. She does not starve, managing instead to purloin, through persistence, puppy eyes and sheer cheek, a steady stream of delicacies usually lacking from her normal, balanced diet.

The fish in the aquarium, though equally aware of our visitor, have not changed their eating habits at all. They respond with their usual gusto to whatever is offered, being particularly fond of a slice of courgette. They also appreciate the algae wafers with which they play their own version of aquatic football, chasing and passing the last remaining  morsels with speed and agility.

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My son, meanwhile, has, through the occasional provision of food, acquired a cat. Not a full-time cat, but more of an opportunist that has taken up residence in his home. The cat now known as Oscar, may yet prove to be a more feminine feline than the name suggests. Either way, he/she already has my son trained and as he has me trained, I spent some time today searching for a pet shop that was open where I could acquire the necessities for his new companion.

And then, there are the birds. The little robin that now comes daily for his dinner at my garden table along with innumerable other birds…and the kites who draw our attention every time they treat us to a display of their aerial mastery. Like today, when everything stopped as we watched them swoop and dive from the kitchen window, eventually grabbing the camera and heading outdoors….as always.

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The fish never change their behaviour because there is no cause to do so. Their diet does not change just because we have visitors. Their world is bounded by the glass of their tank. It is self contained and the conditions of their existence remain constant. There is nothing new for them to react to. The dog, on the other hand, knows full well that my guest will oblige her with treats, ball-throwing and cuddles. It is a simple, frank arrangement. The cat, reacting to the offer of food, has capitalised on the situation with feline finesse and cunning and now owns a fully trained lap in a warm house, along with a brand new litter-box, catnip and toys. The robin has me trained, knowing I come when he calls… and the kites, oblivious and glorious, have us trained by their power and beauty.

We are all caught by our reactions. We may be reacting to new situations, yet the reactions themselves are not new…they are the product of a lifelong conditioning created from our responses to all the experiences we have encountered, our personalities and the way we notice and react to the needs and desires of others. Some of those reactions are not even truly our own but have been learned from our society and our parents. This is not necessarily a bad thing… it is from those who raise us that we learn our early understanding of empathy and compassion.

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It does become a problem, though, when we allow unthinking, unconscious reaction to be the ruling force of our lives. We are able to respond on auto-pilot, without any thought or consideration for what we are doing or why. We may well end up doing the right thing that way, but it is not always for the right reasons, nor is it a conscious act…a choice. And that automatic reaction can so occupy our attention that we fail to see what is right in front of our eyes.

Which is why, while we were watching the kites through the kitchen window at the front of the house, revelling in their speed and power, we almost failed to see the kite that had perched in the tree at the back of the house. Sometimes the best things can be hidden in plain sight and we are blinded to them simply because we are operating on auto-pilot.

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Word power

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“It really gets to me,” said my son, checking his phone as I was putting his socks on.

“What does?”

“Words… stuff like this…” He read me a passage from social media. I immediately saw what he meant. It was story about a little girl with a beautiful voice. It was a touching enough tale, without the need of the writer to add pathos. ‘Despite her disabilities’ we were told, she sings like an angel.

I could see my son’s point, but he expounded anyway. Why should having a disability mean that she shouldn’t have a lovely voice? Doubtless the writer was only trying to add an extra dimension to her talent. Without any doubt at all there had been no thought of marginalising any further a young lady already labelled as disabled…a word that means broken, unfit for use, rendered powerless… It was simply a figure of speech with no harm intended or implied. Yet the implication is clear, somewhere in the writer’s mind, there was surprise that a disabled child could sing so well.

What struck me once again was how many preconceptions and prejudices are built into our language. They may not even be our own, just ‘figures of speech’ for which we have few, or no, alternatives; phrases we have learned growing up and have simply accepted as being the norm because that is what everyone around us says, without ever thinking of the underlying implications.

One of the problems lies in how easy it is to hurt or offend a listener. You may know what you mean… they can only know what they see and hear. While we are not responsible for another’s reaction to our words, we are solely responsible for what we say and how.

Disability is something my son and I have become quite sensitive to over the past few years. We don’t jump on every imagined slight or slur, for the simple reason that we too have used those exact same figures of speech ourselves, often still do, without ever realising what effect they have on either our listeners or our outlook. It isn’t just disability though; in any area where there is room for prejudice… race, colour, religion, ideology, sexual orientation, age or gender… we have words and phrases that invisibly separate ‘them’ from ‘us’. Most of the time, their use is unconscious and completely innocent of offense… no more than a habitual pattern of words.

In the 19th century, French psychologist Émile Coué famously introduced the idea of conscious autosuggestion, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”. By repeating the words over and over, the mind adopted an attitude of optimism. Coué posited that real change is effected at the unconscious levels through the imagination, rather than by an effort of conscious will and various methods of suggestion and autosuggestion have made their way into our everyday lives. Henry Ford is also commonly credited with saying, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” The power of the imagination over belief has been understood for a very long time. If we are continually repeating words and phrases that bear a negative connotation, instead of moving forward and adopting a more open and universal mindset, are we repeatedly renewing the outmoded prejudices and conditioning that are unconsciously entrenched in our minds?

The ‘PC’ brigade jump on us for calling the person who delivers the mail the postman instead of the postperson and insists upon other such ludicrous and unnecessary shifts in our speech to prevent the slightest possible hint of offense….yet behind the scenes, we are continuing with patterns of speech that convey outdated ideas and a lack of acceptance of our fellow Man (or should that be fellow person?) that belong to earlier generations and attitudes. I have to wonder what beliefs we are reinforcing by our use of phrases of verbal separation.

I am not a huge fan of the lunacy of the more extreme aspects of the PC movement. The freedom to speak what is in our minds and hearts should not be bound and gagged, though I firmly believe that we can best do so without being offensive, provocative or exhibiting prejudice. A little respect and decency goes a long way. We are not going to adopt consciously better patterns of speech overnight, any more than we will start calling our Transparency Enhancement Facilitator* anything other than the window cleaner. What we can do is bring a little awareness and empathy to what we say and the words we choose. We can begin to be aware of what it is that we are really saying, both in words and by implication… and put ourselves in the skin of others and feel what they feel.

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* Do click through to the article…hilarious and tragic, all at once.