The thing about chickens is, they have both good and bad character. When I open the coop door and allow our chickens to roam the yard, they lurch along from leg to leg crowding and nudging me, wanting the bag of table scraps I have in my hand. They’re annoying and don’t know how to share with each other. They like to hoard, and they can be vicious and nasty in a fight. Still, chickens are generally good mothers, protective of their nest and amazingly, they turn all our leftovers: sour milk, brown lettuce leaves, and old cereal, into rich, yellow-yoked eggs.
Humans have a lot in common with chickens, including an unreliable character. Even Shakespeare had something to say about our shared shortcoming: “…tis but a base, ignoble mind that mounts no higher than a bird…”
Maybe it’s because of our fickle characters that we like to lionize or villainize others, placing people in categories of good and evil.
We easily and readily judge, anointing saint and sinner. Look at the response to the recent televised dramas about the problems between Meghan Markle and Britain’s royal family, or, the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow abuse saga. Serious allegations have been made in these situations, but that’s not my point. What I find interesting is how much we enjoy passing judgement. It’s the same with chickens. There’s always an effort underway in the coop to ferret out a bird that will become the sacrifice for everyone’s sins. She’s the chicken that gets pecked at. And once this happens, predictably, all the other chickens pile on until there’s nothing left of her but dried blood and tail feathers.
Certainly, justice is important. People do bad or criminal things and should be held accountable. But why do we relish the role of judge so much? The desire to impugn someone’s character and place blame is such a strong impulse (in both chickens and humans) that even friendships become susceptible.
People can’t deal with each other’s failings so they go to counseling to learn how to cope with “toxic” relationships.
My therapist daughter tells me Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) helps clients view themselves and others through a more multi-colored lens, rather than black and white. One aspect of DBT is to recognize there are different truths about us all, and we are complex. History is full of flawed characters. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence with both eloquence and inspiration, yet he kept a slave mistress and died in debt. Aviator Charles Lindberg exhibited great skill and courage in 1927 with his nonstop, solo flight across the Atlantic. Yet, Lindberg also was a racist, and widely reported to be a Nazis sympathizer.
I just read Kristen Hannah’s latest novel, The Four Winds, and marveled at what a compelling story she told of a family surviving the dust bowl and migrant labor camps in the 1930’s. Good literature usually moves you emotionally, and this book did that for me. Even given this, I was acutely aware that Hannah’s book was historical fiction. The characters weren’t real. They were not rounded. They were one-dimensional, either good or bad. The protagonist mother was a long-suffering angel, and her boss at the migrant camp was unscrupulous and greedy (the MO, by the way, of several “tough” business leaders today).
Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion in the media about the “cancel culture,” a social phenomenon involving judging and shunning.
It’s not only a problem across the political spectrum (for both conservatives and liberals), but also in our communities and family systems where estrangements can occur. It’s one response to people in our lives that we find intolerable. Another might be, understanding. We may not be able to accept everything about another person, but pecking them to death is not a solution either.