There are two hummingbirds who have been nourishing themselves on the feeder outside my living room window in the past few weeks. One is absolutely gorgeous. The ruby of his throat is a deep, vibrant, fire-engine jewel tone. The green on his wings and his back match the red in its tone. He is a little bit smaller than the other one, as if his colors are made more intense by concentration. It seems like every time I look out the window, he is zipping around the feeder. First he sticks his beak into the hole in the middle of one of the small, aluminum flower petals, reaching his proboscis all the way down to the sugar-water in the dish which is secured underneath the hole. Then, he jumps back and hovers in the air for a minute as if he has to let the sweet lubricant settle into the deepest part of his being before finding his way to another of the aluminum-petaled flowers. I am reluctant to tell him that each flower leads to the same reservoir of sweetness; I guess he will figure out the physics of it all on his own if it becomes important to him. Sometimes he rests his wings for a minute as he drinks; most of the time, though, he remains suspended in air, using some of that intense, sugar-fueled energy even as he sucks it into his tiny body.
I would love to get a photograph of him. If I could get the light just right, his ruby throat and his emerald back and even his pearly belly and face would practically glow. So every time I see him taking a meal, I quickly pull out the camera and quietly head outside. But immediately, as soon as he sees me or hears me or uses whatever sense he uses to perceive my presence, he flies away. It does not matter how quietly I open and close the door, or how slowly I put the view finder on the camera to my eye, or how steadily, almost imperceptibly, I step around the corner to get a clear shot. He will not stick around long enough for me to take his photo. And he refuses to return as long as I sit there. I can pull out my folding canvas chair, prop my camera on my lap, and sit still for what seems like hours. Something has told him to be afraid of me, and he will not return.
But as I sit there on my patio, I am frequently able to see the other hummingbird which hangs around my feeder. She is much, much friendlier than the other one. She might wait for a few minutes to let me settle in, but then I hear her buzzing vibrations in the air, and she comes flitting about the feeder. Like the other, she goes from this aluminum-petal-framed hole to that one, stopping between sips to let her meal settle a bit, sometimes resting on the edge of the feeder and sometimes continuing to let her wings beat as she takes her high-calorie nourishment. While she sometimes prefers to drink from the hole on the opposite side of the feeder from where I sit, she will almost always spend at least some time on my side, with a clear view from my camera. She even helpfully steps back from the feeder for a second or two so the auto-focus on the camera can capture her, rather than the feeder itself, making the photos come out much more clear. She is the one in the photo above.
There is only one problem: this hummingbird is nowhere near as beautiful as the other one. She doesn’t have much of a ruby throat; only one, small patch on her throat is red at all, and it lacks the vibrancy of the others. It is a bit off-center, too, making it look more like a blemish than a feature of her complexion. And the green on her back is a bit dull, too; it is more of a brown, really, and even the white of her chest and head seems to have a grayish tint. So I find myself greeting her kindly, but not moving as eagerly to take her photograph. She’s nice and all, but what I really want to capture in my lens is the other, more beautiful one.
It is hard for me to even admit this. To say this publicly requires to admit just how shallow I am. I assign a greater value to the more attractive one. And I easily dismiss the other, less attractive one as friendly enough, but not really worthy of my best photographic attention. Why do I do this to myself? Is it simply because I put too much value on the judgements of others? If I could just get a photograph of the prettier bird, people would want to look at my photograph; they would place a greater value on the product I produce, and maybe even a greater value on me, too. Is it that kind of pride? Or is it something else? Is it some primal impulse within me that I cannot control? Is it because I am naturally drawn to the more attractive one, as if anything that is stronger or prettier will help me to conceive a more attractive offspring, who will be more likely to find his or her own mate and carry my genetic material well into the future? Is this some kind of survival of the fittest instinct, spilling all over my backyard?
Or am I really just a shallow person?
Why am I unable to look at even something as inconsequential as my hummingbird feeder and avoid getting swept up into the myth of beauty? Why am I incapable of turning off my evaluation of physical features, even if just for a moment of lounging in my backyard? Why does it seem like I can only direct my viewfinder toward that which is most vivacious, most sexy, most bold in its beauty? Why do I judge like that?
I’ve been working my way through Henri Nouwen’s book, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit. It is one of those books of short pieces which you have to read slowly and savor or you will become quickly overwhelmed with introspection. In one short essay entitled “The Burden of Judgement,” Nouwen cites anonymous fourth-century desert fathers, who simply and truthfully pointed out that “‘judging others is a heavy burden.'” And Nouwen invites the reader to imagine “having no need at all to judge anybody.” “Wouldn’t that be true inner freedom?” he asks (p. 60).
And I realize as I imagine that I long for that freedom. I don’t know the origin of it, but I have heard of a greeting that is shared by some Christians that goes, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in you.” It’s a bit of an awkward phrase, but it acknowledges that something deep inside of each of us bears the image of God. If I could overcome the impulse to judge; if I could look past the shallow evaluations of appearances; if I could cease putting one person or one creature beside another, or putting all creatures beside myself, in order to point out the flaws in each one, then I would be free of something which, now that the desert fathers mention it, really does feel like a heavy burden. That freedom would open my soul to receive every person, every creature, as a unique gift which bears a reflection of nothing less than God.
I sat on my patio for almost an hour this afternoon, simply reading a magazine and enjoying what was going on around me. With an almost-seven-year-old boy in the house, I don’t get a chance to sit like that very often; I even had to spend some of the time ignoring the scratches of our resident chocolate lab on the back door. As I sat, I saw all kinds of beauty around me. Blue jays flew in and out of the trees. A young squirrel perched on a branch of the dying oak by the fence. First one tufted titmouse, and then another, came along to get an afternoon snack on the bird feeder. Then, a brilliant cardinal wanted a turn, but he was chased away by some other bird. And I saw my friends the hummingbirds. The more outgoing one took her turn on the feeder and went to a tree branch to watch for a while. A little while later, two others flew in over the roof from the front yard, but the strangers couldn’t even make it to the aluminum-petaled flowers before the other two swooped out of the trees and chased them away. The whole time I was out there, it was difficult for me to resist the urge to go inside and get my camera. But because I resisted the urge, I didn’t gaze at what was going on around me through the lens of my own judgements. I didn’t have to decide which of the creatures I was watching was more beautiful than the others. I could simply enjoy them all, each one filled with its own reflection of the beauty of its Creator.
I felt so free that the Christ in me almost sang a doxology: Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!