One day last summer I was staring out the window watching the river when a heron caught my eye. He was walking along the bank with that odd mixture of elegance and awkwardness that the breed exhibits on land. After a minute, I realized he wasn’t walking. He was stalking, heading toward the nesting site of some red-winged blackbirds in the reeds.
As I watched he moved forward, leading with his head down low, taking slow deliberate strides as the smaller birds began to call in distress and dive at him, wings flapping wildly. But the ending was preordained. When he reached the nest, he dipped down just out of my sight, then came up with something that looked horribly like a baby bird in its beak and flew away. The defenders of the nest gave chase for some distance, but the heron paid them no mind. The red winged blackbirds returned, agitated and defeated.
For awhile, I felt incredibly angry at the heron. He had no place on “my” riverbank. In my mind he was no longer a graceful, mesmerizing creature. He was a calculating, single-minded bird of prey bent on killing.
That was ridiculous, of course. The heron was both: a thing of beauty, and a destructive force. It’s possible to hold more than one characteristic at the same time—for man and for bird. And for someone like me, who is far too prone to judge other people, it’s important to be reminded of that.
I’m way too quick to assess someone’s character based on extremely limited knowledge. “What? He did that? He’s a jerk.” Based on similarly scant evidence, I may also decide that another person is a sweetheart. Only to be surprised later by actions from the same people that seem to say each is the exact opposite of my initial ruling. And that’s the key, “seem.”
The truth is people are never just one thing. We all carry within us the dark and the light, the petty and the generous, the selfish and the selfless. To sacrifice someone’s feelings for the sake of a witty remark doesn’t mean that we are never thoughtful. And performing a random gesture of kindness doesn’t make us Mother Teresa. We’re all a mix of characteristics, and few of us would come out well if evaluated on the basis of isolated actions.
As the year winds down and another one is ready to begin, I will vow once again to be less judgmental, more tolerant, and to think before I speak. To remember that it’s easy for me to see the comic, but I can’t always see the cruel. I’m going to attempt to follow the advice of Thumper’s mother–and my own. If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.
I’m hopeful, though, that I’ll get some points just for trying, because past experience says I’m not likely to win the match. I may more often resist the urge to pass judgment, but it will be harder not to say the funny thing I really shouldn’t. Still, baby steps, right?