Friday morning, I saw a fleeting reference to pigeons as “winged rats” as I was scrolling through Twitter. On the drive home, I finally paused to consider why I found this so irritating. The common pigeon, which apparently, we don’t all know and love, is also known as a rock pigeon or rock dove. The reference to being a dove evokes a completely different persona than that of a rat. How could this respect worthy bird be reduced to the stature of a rat, spreader of the bubonic plague?
Pigeons have a special place in my childhood. I liked the cooing sound they made. I liked that they made their nests in places you might not expect. I liked that they had better manners than seagulls or Canadian geese. I always assumed when I heard the song, “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins, it was the appropriate was to treat pigeons. My Grandpa Derksen (my father’s stepfather) adored pigeons and kept them in the backyard along with the chickens, a rooster, and a peacock, long after they sold the farm and moved to an Abbotsford house. He loved the pigeons and he loved me. I loved him and it was my duty to love his pigeons.
I also grew up with stories from my paternal Grandmother, who kept her four kids together in the midst of WWII in Germany before making her way to Canada in 1948. One of the stories that stood out in my mind was that of the rats. In the large warehouses where they sometimes found shelter, she would stay awake at night to shoo away the rats that would move closer in the dark night to nibble on the exposed body parts of her huddled family. My cousin, Kevin, who was never thrilled with his much younger cousin tagging along to the “forbidden without adult supervision” beach across the road on Sundays, added to my horror of rats.
His words have always stuck with me. “You better be careful. If you fall between those rocks, the rats will bite your foot off. They we’ll all be in trouble!” I was very careful.
I went home and searched for the Twitter post. It turns out, @BirdNoteRadio was just employing a good attention-grabbing introduction to their post. Phew! We could agree on the merits of the common rock pigeon. I followed them on Twitter. Common agreement makes relationships so easy.
When I was living in the suburbs, one of my fellow Amnesty International group members, first introduced me to the fact that some people love rats. She had many at home and would bring her favourite rat to Amnesty meetings and let it run around a sling on her neck. It shouldn’t have been such a leap for me to embrace this practice. I had loved other rodents – my cousin’s white mouse, my childhood gerbils, rabbits at my grand-parents, and my classroom guinea pigs. Yet, old biases die hard. I didn’t embrace rats along with my other rodent friends.
One night someone set fire to one of the portables of the school I was teaching at in Clearbrook. I arrived to find a sopping wet, rat sitting in a puddle of water in his cage. Ethical dilemma. This was not a spreader of the bubonic plague but a well-loved classroom pet. Contrary to every instinct in my body to walk away, I didn’t. I changed the bedding. Dried the rat. Put him in a warm spot. I cringed the entire time.
It is hard to change a perspective. Dismissing other ideas is the path of least resistance. Most often the “eureka” moment does not wipe away our entrenched understandings to be replaced by inspiration after the instantaneous flash of understanding. Our background experiences are often hard-wire and impact our responses long after the dawning of emerging understanding. To formulate a new perspective, we may need to challenge an emotional response or challenge ideas that we have accepted unconditionally many times over. The change requires an effort to want to be open to other possibilities. An unwillingness to consider options frequently results in justifications and entrenchment. There is still a bristling or cringing, but it comes from being incensed by the audacity of having our ideas and motives questioned. The greater the emotional investment in our own perspective, the greater the angst at hearing another perspective presented. The corollary is an absence of critical thought and the absence of personal growth.
At the end of the day, the conversations that are the most memorable come from diverse perspectives. Not just disagreement for the entertainment of playing the role of the devil’s advocate. Not just to be entertained by the novel response of someone intent on changing your mind with any tools of derision or insult at hand. But the disagreement that comes from a well thought-out and a well-intentioned perspective of trying to create understanding. This is the type of conversation that precipitates thought and is considered long after the initial conversation. It is also the willingness to emerge beyond the “Yeah, but” that proliferates many of our conversations. The possibility is a greater capacity for empathy and understanding.