For the Birds Radio Program: Optimism

Original Air Date: Oct. 1, 2003 Rerun Dates: Sept. 29, 2016; Oct. 18, 2012; Nov. 12, 2010; Dec. 11, 2009; Sept. 8, 2009; Oct. 30, 2008; Aug. 19, 2008; Dec. 27, 2007; Dec. 29, 2006; Sept. 15, 2006; June 29, 2006; Dec. 29, 2005; Oct. 18, 2005; July 15, 2005; Jan. 6, 2005

Optimism grounded in expectations is not optimism at all: after all, there really isn’t a pony at the bottom of most piles of manure. Chickadee optimism is steeped not in expectations but in faith that life itself is good.

Duration: 4′28″



I just read one of Sam Cook’s columns, in which Sam was talking about how he tries to go through life like a farmer he knows, a man who deals with a lot of problems in his day-to-day life. He expects challenges to crop up, and when they do, he simply handles them. As Sam says, “it’s all about expectations.” “Remain flexible, but don’t go limp.”

I don’t have a farmer in my life to learn from, but I do have chickadees. Chickadees are easy going and cheerful in a world filled with Merlins and Sharp-shinned Hawks, Red Squirrels on the prowl for eggs, ice storms, droughts and floods. Chickadees don’t expect their days to be halcyon ones—when it comes right down to it, optimism grounded in expectations isn’t optimism at all. After all, there really isn’t a pony at the bottom of most piles of manure. Blue Jays are the birds with optimism steeped in happy expectations. When a Sharp-shinned Hawk zooms in and just misses a Blue Jay, the jay squawks his head off in shocked victimhood. Jays expect life to be good, and when bad things happen, jays can’t help but be angry and indignant.

That’s not the way chickadees handle adversity. When that same Sharp-shinned Hawk dive-bombs a chickadee, the chickadee just gets the heck out of its way and goes on with his day. Chickadees know darned well that there are hawks out there, and they’re hardly willing to serve as a light lunch for one. But their focus is on finding food, doing fix-it projects on their little cavities that they sleep in each night, building new cavities when something destroys or appropriates the old one, and maintaining ties with their flock and family members. To simplify their lives, chickadee flocks keep a simple pecking order, but they don’t actually peck. When one chickadee flies in for a sunflower and a lower-ranking chickadee beats her to it, she doesn’t whine or gripe—she makes a simple, declarative gargle call that tells the other chickadee clearly, without any passive aggressiveness or whining or rudeness that SHE really is the one who is supposed to eat next. And the lower ranking chickadee doesn’t complain or act like a victim, she simply flits aside and waits her turn. They don’t hold grudges, because their focus isn’t on victimhood or competitiveness or an outraged sense of disappointment. They go on with their lives with good cheer, their optimism steeped not in expectations but in faith. Chickadees are wise enough to realize that life is filled with little and big disappointments and heartaches and raptors intent on gobbling them down. Their optimism derives from their faith that life itself is good. There are very bad things in the world of a chickadee, but beautiful things, too. A tornado may destroy their nest tree, but new trees sprout every day. A raccoon may reach into a nest cavity and pull out the babies one by one, but chickadees have faith that if they make the hole in their next nest just a little bit smaller and deeper, those rapacious fingers won’t be able to reach. Chickadees don’t squawk their heads off in shock and indignation that raccoons have to eat, too, but neither do they ever lose their determination to keep themselves and their dear ones from serving as a meal. After a loss, never lose their faith in a benevolent universe where little by little, maybe what’s good gets a little bit better, and maybe what’s bad gets gone.

When life, or people, get me down, I’m Irish enough, or Blue Jay enough, to squawk and complain about it. But as Sam Cook looks to his farmer to show him a better way, I look to the chickadees. And some days, I get it right.