A couple of weeks ago, as my friends and I biked through a state park nearby, we happened to see a wild turkey. He had somehow gotten inside a fenced enclosure, and was running back and forth along the fence line in a state of obvious panic, unable to find a way out. At first, I felt terrible for the poor thing. The few times I’ve felt that kind of feverish panic have been really awful, and I immediately identified with his distress. And then my friend, Victoria, said something simple yet incredibly profound. She said, “Hey, you dumb bird! You can fly!”
Yep, despite rumors to the contrary, turkeys are capable of flight. In fact, they roost in trees, so they not only can fly, they do fly. Regularly. (It’s true – I googled it!)
As we rode on, I felt reasonably certain my feathered friend would figure it out. But the encounter got me thinking. I said that Victoria’s statement was simple yet profound. Simple, because she merely pointed out the obvious – the turkey could easily fly out of his predicament. Profound, because each of us experiences moments of panic, fear, anxiety in which we mimic the turkey’s pointless, frantic energy drain. So often at these times we overlook the simple truth that we already possess the skills, talent, or self-knowledge to extricate ourselves from, or to materially alter, the situation.
Why do we do this?
As I’ve asked myself this question, I’ve identified three possible reasons that make sense to me:
1. We’ve told ourselves a story that isn’t true. I wasn’t there for more than a few minutes, but I’m certain the panicked gobbler we came upon had not yet tried flying over the fence. Instead, he was running around looking for any other way out. Like the erroneous story that turkeys can’t fly, we’ve all told ourselves stories about what we are, and are not, capable of doing. Quite often, we are certain we can’t fly (or take risks, or attempt something new, or do what we see others routinely do). We say, “I could never do that” when, in fact, we’ve never even tried. It would be more appropriate to say, “I don’t know if I can do that.”
I was talking with friends about creativity recently, and I said, “I’ve never really been disciplined as a writer.” The first response to my comment was, “That’s not true. You publish your blog every Thursday. How many years have you done that? Seems like discipline to me.” How might it affect my creativity if I began to think of myself as capable of a disciplined approach?
There are other, more insidious stories, we tell ourselves. How about the one that says, “I not only can’t fly, I’m not worthy of flying?” Or the one that goes, “I’ve never flown before, so it’s obvious I never will.” As long as we keep telling these versions of our stories – the versions that say we can’t, that underestimate us, that bully us into keeping our lives smaller than they need be – that is how long we’ll be wasting our energy running around in circles but getting nowhere.
2. We’re afraid of what we don’t know/can’t see. As I watched the turkey running back and forth along the chain link after Victoria pointed out that he could fly out of the enclosure, I realized something. He was so close to the fence, and so much shorter than it, he couldn’t see that the fence ended a few feet up. Perhaps he wasn’t attempting to fly out because he didn’t realize that there was open sky above him.
We are so close to our own fears we bump up against them day in and day out. Living in such close quarters with them, our fears begin to feel both familiar and insurmountable.
As a personal example, I’d like to share how I stopped being afraid of the dark. For much of my life, being alone in the dark was a debilitating fear. One of the ways I dealt with that fear was to have living arrangements that made me feel as if I wasn’t alone – I either had roommates or lived in multi-unit buildings (a career in college housing helped immensely, as I spent two decades living amongst my students). Then I had the opportunity to move into a little cottage by myself. I was feeling burned-out from living in my workplace, and the house was adorable. The first few nights, I couldn’t sleep – I left the lights on, I started at every noise I heard. Finally, about a week after moving in, I was exhausted. I clearly remember having a “come to Jesus” talk with myself. “Jen,” I said, “you can either keep this up and live exhausted all the time, or you can stop being afraid of the dark.” And so I made a different choice.
Holy crap! The most surprising thing about this change was that it worked! I simply chose differently. For example, w hen I heard an unidentifiable noise, I chose to think it was nothing – instead of thinking it was someone trying to break in. At first, this was a very deliberate process. I had to engage in a lot of self-talk. Eventually, though, I didn’t need that anymore. This process taught me that my fears might be familiar, may even sometimes be understandable, but they are rarely insurmountable.
3. We feel overwhelmed by what it would take to change our situation. So poor Mr. Tom Turkey may have forgotten, due to erroneous information, that he could fly. He may not have been able to see that the fence was not, in fact, endless and insurmountable. Or he may have panicked because he was simply overwhelmed by the effort he would have to make to escape his accidental cage. For many of us humans, this feeling of being overwhelmed by the effort of change is a very real phenomenon that prevents us from effecting real changes in our lives.
Of course, we blame ourselves whenever we stop to think about it. But the truth is, we also live in a culture that is continuously encouraging us to accept the status quo. Select comfort and ease over discomfort and hard work. Today’s obsession with inspirational quotes and daily feel-good memes is like my past penchant for gardening shows on PBS. Watching an hour of someone else gardening fulfilled any need I had to do so myself! Why make something happen today when, “It is never to late to be what you might have been” (as the oft-repeated saying goes)?
Perhaps one of the most frequent questions I am asked when people learn I’ve lost half my body weight is, “What was your ‘aha’ moment – what was the trigger that forced you to actually do it this time?” Thanks to popular culture, we’ve gotten used to thinking that only realizations or experiences of seismic proportions will move us enough to make real change happen in our lives. The truth for me? I stopped thinking I needed some big reason to change AND I stopped thinking that only BIG changes mattered. Instead, I allowed myself to make one decision/choice at a time. Right this minute, am I hungry? If yes, am going to eat a brownie or am I going to eat a Greek yogurt? If no, am I going to eat anyway or not? Simple choices. Not overwhelming at all when made one at a time, rather than the kind of all-or-nothing thinking that leads us so often to experience failure.
It turns out that, quite often, change overwhelms us because we simply psych ourselves out.
“You can fly,” Victoria told the turkey. Why didn’t he realize that for himself? Perhaps he just forgot he could fly, suffering from a turkey-version of memory loss. Whatever the turkey’s reasons, it seems certain they are less complicated than the reasons we humans forget or willfully ignore what we are capable of. One of the things I appreciate about observing animal behaviors – which are mainly, I believe, instinctual, – is what it teaches me about my own behaviors. And it helps me to differentiate between instinctual behavior and choice behavior; between reactivity and proactivity. Freeing ourselves from our own fenced-in places requires that we seek this kind of clarity, and that we act on it once we’ve found it. When it comes to what we’re capable of achieving, let’s agree to stop being turkeys and remember that we can fly, too!