Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Standing Up to Fear

Black-capped Chickadee

I was born in 1951, and as far back as I can remember, the news was scary. My first encounters with the words “rape,” “murder,” and “torture” were in the Chicago Tribune. Richard Speck murdered 8 student nurses in Chicago when I was 14 years old. This horror was the top story for weeks after the murder, and was mentioned almost daily throughout the months up to his trial and through his appeals.

And I knew the world was even scarier than what made the news. My father was a Chicago firefighter who brought home stories of death and violence not seen in the news. My high school had a shooting in 1967—a boy killed his ex-girlfriend and wounded some teachers—but that didn’t make the front page. My brother dealt with day-to-day terrors in Vietnam but none of his experiences made the news except as reflected in casualty numbers. One of my elementary school friends, Jimmy Califf, died there, but his death didn’t make the news—his is just one of the 58,195 names on the Vietnam Memorial.  

Vietnam Memorial

My own home seemed even more dangerous than the outside world. I was assaulted more than once and threatened at gunpoint by someone in my family’s inner circle. In college I was mugged in my own yard.  Yes, I’ve known all along that this is a dangerous planet.

But I’ve known all along, with equal certainty, that this is a lovely, friendly planet. Long before I knew of the existence of chickadees, I was lucky to have something of their outlook. Some of my family were filled with paralyzing fears that kept them from doing things they yearned to do. I wasn’t less wary than they. Like a chickadee, if anything set off my inner radar, I got out of the way fast. The times I was in physical danger, I protected myself with words and, when necessary, by physically defending myself. But I knew that most people aren’t dangerous, and that behavior, not appearance, tells us who to avoid. I was careful, but never fearful.

Chickadees open their social flocks to any birds that don’t endanger them, including species that look nothing like them. This openness makes them safer as the whole flock works together to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare. The more open to novel experiences a chickadee is, the more likely it is to discover new food resources and places to make roost holes. The most fearless chickadees in my yard are first to appear when I crack open the window to offer mealworms. One of my chickadees is more fearful than the others. In the time most members of the flock have taken 4 or 5 mealworms from my hand, that wary one will get just 1 or even none. Caution is a useful trait, but since every chickadee flits off instantly if I do something unexpected, they’re all safe, and the most fearful one is the one at a disadvantage.

TV nature specials and outdoor adventure stories seem to equate fitness with aggressiveness, glorifying the “kill-or-be-killed” “nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw” philosophy. But chickadees are far more numerous and successful than the predators that attack them, because they know to avoid the bad without ever losing sight of the good in their world. Despite their tiny size and fragile bodies, some banded wild chickadees have survived over 12 years. They transcend the “dog-eat-dog” “it’s-a-jungle-out-there” mindset to lead their lives without ever once jettisoning their essential goodness and openness and trust. 

Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables:
Have no fear of robbers or murderers. They are external dangers, petty dangers. ... The great dangers are within us. Why worry about what threatens our heads or our purses? Let us think instead of what threatens our souls. 
Chickadees go through life souls fully intact, knowing instinctively what only the happiest, most successful human societies ever figure out: We’re all in this together.

Black-capped Chickadee


  1. I'm glad that Chickadees are so small... with all that heart, spunk and attitude, they could be a bit problematic if they were human-sized! Banders cringe when we find a Chickadee in the net--they have all sorts of 'love-em-hate-em' nicknames given to them by banders!

    They respond to a bander taking them from a net with something more like indignation than anything else. They bite, peck, grab, twist, poke, flutter and are generally difficult to deal with when trying to get them from the net and band them.

    It's as if they have no sense of the size difference between us and them. They stand up in the face of this predator thousands of times their size. I'm not sure if it's bravery or stupidity, but it's a display of heart and tenacity that I can't help but admire. Even when their grip on the only hangnail on my hand bring tears to my eyes!

  2. Thank you Laura...the lesson of the Chickadee is helpful and I truly appreciate this entry today!

  3. Thank you. You spoke my mind. So good hear of and from others who choose to "lead their lives without ever once jettisoning their essential goodness and openness and trust."

  4. Beautifully conceived and written. Many thanks.

  5. Dear Laura,
    I enjoyed seeing the photo of you receiving your first binoculars....and then reading this post about how you have flown and walked in this world even when others tried to clip your wings and nip your heels. I am just a tiny bit older than you, was also a teen stunned by the murder of the nurses and remember the nurse who survived by hiding under the bed. One of the takeaway lessons for me was that there are limits to the power of reasoning with crazy. ( So why did I become a therapist?) There is so much in your sharing which I read for the first time last night and may take time to read again...but mostly I like hearing your voice and delighted in the lesson of the abundant little birds. Thank you. Happy Birding.

  6. After making an entry in "For the Birds" (owned since 2000) the though occurred that you would have a website. I am delighted to find that you do and that it is filled with the same style of writing as in your book. I love your views on fear and that you cite the chickadee as example of good way to living free and open to life. Who doesn't love a chickadee? Thank you.

  7. Beautiful Laura. An open heart supports courage. Courage supports living with an open heart. You can't see the beauty of life without both.