Sometimes I stumble onto an insight from an unexpected source that astounds me. Turkey vultures recently provided that. Yes, turkey vultures. I admit to having despised these carrion-feeding birds floating in the air, circling and circling. “Disgusting creatures,” was always my assessment when I thought of how their movement provided the means of locating fresh carcasses to devour, even though they help clean the landscape of debris.
But something shifted in my view of these birds the day I drove across the Saylorville Lake dam. Because of the dam’s height, the vultures were gliding almost at level with my car. I stopped and rolled down the window to watch. One vulture hovered only ten feet from me, at first not paying any attention, but then looked over and focused directly with those black eyes in the red head, stared at me with a “do-you-smell-dead-enough-to-eat expression. I could have felt repelled by that sight but instead I was drawn to what actual appeared beautiful. I noticed the soft shading of the brown and black plumage, observed with fascination how the large bird managed to suspend itself, riding on an air current with the awesome six-foot wingspan fully extended, an image of being completely at ease.
In that brief encounter, I looked more intently at a vulture than I ever had before. Doing so split open my bias. It led me to view the bird in a completely different way. When I did so, my old loathing dissolved. I recognized beauty in what was beside me. Maybe it was the hazy air with wisps of leftover fog that tugged and led me to take a closer look. Whatever it was that pulled me out of my repugnance and moved me to really see the vulture, it served to guide me toward my biases regarding certain people.
Only by observing attentively, by letting go of a wall of negative judgement and long-held feelings, only then did I recognize the true nature of the turkey vulture and engage with the extra-ordinariness of the bird. That day when I rolled down the window and gazed, I looked first with my physical eye, but then with the clearer eye of the heart. Doing so transformed my outlook. Now, if I could only do the same with the human species, those I sometimes think of in the same vein as my old view of turkey vultures.
Bias abounds everywhere. I do not want to add to harmful discrimination, to the hate and hostility toward strangers that spills through the daily news. Just this past month a Texas woman, a Mexican-American, yelled obscenities and then began striking women of India who are also Americans. She did so when she heard their accent, accosting them because they “did not speak good English,” screamed at them to go back to their own country. I wonder how this woman’s biases became that lethal and loathing regarding others whose voice still carries the remnants of their former country’s language.
All this leads me back to my own thoughts and attitudes, my personal biases about people who differ from myself in belief, appearance and behavior. Jesus looked to the birds of the air to teach a lesson on living. Today it is turkey vultures who prompt me to live more intently the Christian teachings of loving kindness, non-judgment, and compassion.