What the Flock: Lessons from Nature


The gray clouds darkened the beach and spit out small, cool raindrops that landed on my lips.  The rough sea coughed up onto the sand, fresh shells connected at their hinge.  I walked with my hands in my pocket, fingering the smooth gray shale I’d found the day before.  Trunks of palm trees were pushed high up on the shore, their fronds long stripped off.

Up ahead there was a black mass of birds huddled together against a backdrop of raging sea.  I was headed past them to a large outcropping of boulders at the end of the beach where waves crashed and spit up like geysers against the rocks.  But the flock was so large that I was afraid that walking by them would spook them, sending them into the air away from their relative safety in their feathered congregation amidst the chaotic storm.

Startling them wasn’t worth it to me.  I thought that without the normal throngs of people sprinkling the beach, this seemed more their home than usual, and I was a guest.  In the normal day to day, it’s so easy to forget that before there were people and beach condos, animals lived undisturbed by us.  More and more we encroach on their homes.  In the marshes near by, people throw Coke cans and beer bottles out into the water, which become trapped at low tide.  The big white cranes circle high in the air next to a giant man-made bridge that traverses over their marsh and the adjacent river.

I made a wide berth around the birds.  A few looked at me, but I looked at them only with a calm disposition, enjoying the sight of hundreds of birds.  I’d never seen so many on this beach, and I wondered where they were normally.  I got around them without any disturbance and they continued their huddle.

I stood at the outcropping of boulders and watched the sea turn to mist as it crashed, thinking of a memory so sweet it pulled at my belly, of a time when life was so beautiful you could taste it like wild blueberries.  Back then, life wasn’t easy, but it was simple, living in a dry cabin on weekends and driving the great Alaska highways through the week, living on the road and camping at night after collecting data as a research aide.  I’d haul water home, and sprint through the foliage at the back of the cabin to the outhouse, as the rain come down.

Behind me on the beach was a family who were most obviously tourists.  A woman came uncomfortably close to me given I was the only other person at the beach and two of the family were throwing a ball together, while a few others walked along.  I walked toward the direction they had come from trying to leave their hoots and hollers behind.

I turned back to see the younger members of the family sprint toward the flock. All at once, hundreds of birds rushed into the air, beating their frantic wings against the headwind.  There were so many hovering above the small strip of beach that their wings barely touched each other as they rose as a group into the sky.  The wind was blowing against their hollow wings pushing against their attempt to flee.  They settled 15-20 feet up the beach away from the family.

The children made another rush at the birds, sending them soaring once again into the sky.  I watched as they did this over and over again.  I watched sensing the frightened terror of the birds as they worked to get away from a perceived threat.

The children weren’t trying to hurt the birds, but they wanted to send them flying, simply because they could.

I felt sick watching this unfold, hating the family.  I started walking back, following them.  I overtook them, and the birds, and as if sensing what I was urging them to do, the flock flew up and out over the water, circling back to their original safety behind the family.

It was a perfect metaphor for emotional abuse.  So misunderstood, and often trivialized, emotional abuse is often more traumatizing than physical abuse.  The abuser (the family) creates a sense of danger in the victim (the birds).  The abuser uses fear as a tool to control the actions of the victims, manipulating them to behave or act in ways that contradict their best interests.  While the abuser doesn’t actual physically harm the victim, they create threats that make the victims feel as if they are at risk of harm.  The threats and manipulation and control create a level of stress that often triggers a flight or fight response (no pun intended) because the fear puts them into crisis mode and they feel like they have to survive.

In a healthy relationship, two people can coexist with love and respect, and a sense of safety and well-being, just as when I was able to walk around the birds without startling them.  I was able to coexist with them, which allowed me to admire the flock without them taking flight (I don’t even particularly like birds).  And yet, abusers will torment their victims for no other reason than their own entertainment and the feeling of power.

Today was so clearly an example of what emotional abuse looks like in toxic relationship and a great reminder that pure love doesn’t try to control or manipulate or scare, but it respects and appreciates the nature of their love without expectation.

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