We added an adult hen to our flock this week. She was the lone survivor of a predator attack which killed all of her friends. We acclimated her to our flock by placing her in a cage (in the same coop) with our ladies. They could look but not touch.
After what we thought was sufficient time, we integrated her into our flock. Immediately, our Barred Plymouth Rock made a beeline to her and demonstrated aggressive behavior. The Rock is the lowest chicken in the pecking order, matter of fact she is dead last. She saw this as an opportunity to move herself up the chicken ladder and was determined to make this new hen low woman on the totem pole.
My first thought was, “Really? She knows what it’s like to be disrespected and bullied and here she is doing it to someone else!” Then, I remembered they’re just chickens. In the animal world, the Rock is ensuring her survival. She will no longer be the last to eat, have the worst position on the roost or the likelihood of being the first killed by a predator.
I’ve always told our kids the only thing that separates humans from animals is our ability to override instinctive behaviors. Just because you “feel” a certain way, humans have the free will or choice not to act upon it. (This talk was designed for the hormone filled teenage years but still rings true.) The Rock was simply acting on her instinctive animal behaviors, thank heavens we humans can rise above that.
“Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being’s suffering. Not a career. Not wealth. Not intelligence. Certainly not status. We have to feel for one another if we’re going to survive with dignity.” Audrey Hepburn
Unlike our chicken, I would never seize upon someone else’s misery to feel better about myself or use it for personal gain. I thought of the times I’ve been humiliated, embarrassed or made to feel inferior. Did those lessons teach me to be more compassionate? Did I internalize those instances so they would heighten my awareness of similar suffering around me? Or, as a coping mechanism did I bury those unpleasant feelings so deeply that I’d forgotten them?
I decided those lessons/emotions are still there, no matter how deeply they are buried. This was confirmed today when a stranger stopped by our office, asking to detail our cars. His entire detail shop was contained in the shopping cart he was pushing. He earned $50 at our establishment then asked to borrow our phone so he could call and tell his wife. I imagined her elation at being able to purchase groceries that night. It triggered a memory of when Garry and I were attending college, married with two small kids. We were so broke all we had to eat for an entire week was eggs and oatmeal. At least the kids got some variety with their school lunch, ha-ha. I remember the excitement of seeing Garry arrive home unexpectedly, carrying grocery sacks of food! My joy soon turned to concern as I wondered whether Garry had resorted to criminal activity to acquire such a bounty? No, he sold his blood at the blood bank to earn extra money. Those feelings came rushing back like a flood and for a brief moment I stood in that car detailer (and his wife’s) shoes.
The lesson I learned from watching our chickens is you don’t have to exploit others to harm them. They can be unintentionally hurt by neglect. When we’re too busy or self-absorbed to notice the plight of those around us, we miss opportunities to walk in their shoes. We miss opportunities to elevate their position through our shared experiences. Empathy enriches our lives. Reflecting on our own hardships (eggs & oatmeal), not only keeps one humble but reminds us of things we’ve overcome. We’ve all prevailed and conquered some form of adversity in our lives. Enjoy your victory and take time to share it with others. It’ll make both of you feel good!