The Lesson of the Hummingbird
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Often, as I eat my breakfast, I see a flash of iridescent orange zip by the kitchen window and hover in midair at the lip of a flower. A hummingbird threads its long, delicate bill into the center of the flower, not even touching the petals, and sips its breakfast. A moment later it is gone, having drunk only what was necessary and leaving the flower pollinated. Precise, efficient, agile, respectful: I think humanity can find no better teacher in the art of living.
To me, the hummingbird holds out a promise: this is how we all can live, gradually outgrowing a way of life in which we gulp down all the nectar, spoil the flower by pulling off the petals, and finally uproot the plant. “Such a way of life,” writes E. F. Schumacher, referring to our overuse of fossil fuels, “could have no permanence and could therefore be justified only as a purely temporary expedient. As the world’s resources of non-renewable fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe, and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature, which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men.” The same could be said about any of our precious resources, from bauxite to rain forests.
To put it in economic terms, we are frittering away our capital when we should be living wisely on the interest, leaving the capital to bear rich dividends for future generations. This is what Gandhi meant by commerce without morality, a way of life in which all our nobler goals and aspirations are subsumed in the desire to produce and consume more and more.
Just as science with humanity is not solely the concern of those who wear white coats and work in laboratories, the ultimate responsibility for commerce with morality does not fall only on multinational corporations or governments. Recently, Time magazine, in an editorial that declared Earth the Planet of the Year, said, “No attempt to protect the environment will be successful in the long run unless ordinary people – the California housewife, the Mexican peasant, the Soviet factory worker, the Chinese farmer – are willing to adjust their lifestyles. Our wasteful, careless ways must become a thing of the past.”
As far as I am concerned, this has the potential to become a very promising situation. If it were up to bureaucracies and boards of directors to determine our fate, it would be far more difficult to change things. But it is not up to them. It is up to us. In matters of commerce and the environment, we are the President, the Supreme Court, and the Congress. We decide what to buy and what to ban, what to support and what to discourage.
In other words, the solution is not revolution but evolution. Lasting change happens when people see for themselves that a different way of life is more fulfilling than their present one. This does not happen through government decrees, although they have an important place. To a limited extent, laws do enforce changes, but they rarely inspire people or make them happier. Laws change the way people fulfill their desires, but they cannot show people the beauty of a simpler, more artistic way of life. Only fellow human beings can do that.
My submission is that our image of the human being – of ourselves – influences every aspect of our lives, from politics and economics to education, health care, and relationships. If the quantum theory – a new image of matter and energy – has made revolutionary changes in the sciences, a nobler image of the human being can lead to a much more important evolution in daily living.
The question is, how can this higher image replace the current low image, which is so deeply reinforced by conditioning? How can ordinary people – the California housewife, the Mexican peasant, the Soviet factory worker, and the Chinese farmer – be inspired to find a new, more efficient way of living, one that is deeply satisfying and joyful yet sensitive to the needs of all?
One thing is certain: nothing will happen if we all wait for others to do it first. The first step in creating a healthy, peaceful postindustrial era is for a few of us to start peeling back the iron mask of conditioning ourselves, basing our lives on a higher image of who we are and a deeper understanding of what we need for a satisfying life. In the midst of a quickly changing world, such “evolutionaries” can provide an inspiring example of what Schumacher calls “a viable future visible in the present”: a life built on cooperation, artistry, thrift, and compassion; a life that is not only ecologically sound but vastly more fulfilling than modern industrial life. There may be only a handful of such people to start with, but that should not deter us.
We need men and women who can, as George Bernard Shaw says, dream of things that never were, and ask “Why not?” Our present way of life is characterized by a lack of sensitivity and inventiveness, by a lack of freedom, by hypnotization by the profit motive. We need men and women who can think and invent with a mind filled with compassion, charged with the kind of creativity that finds a place for the smallest songbird and the largest elephant. We need people with the artistry to live in simplicity as the hummingbird does, enjoying the nectar without bruising the flower. We need men and women who delight in working together for a common goal.
This is how we can heal the environment. We have the answer to the environmental crisis already present inside us; it does not have to be invented. But neither do we have to do all the work: biologists tell us there are powerful natural forces that can reverse the damage we have done to the ecosystem. Just as the human body has healing capacities, nature is filled with restorative processes that can heal all the wounds we have inflicted, if we will only give her a chance. Where attempts have been made to reverse environmental illnesses, nature has been quick to respond. It’s only when she is overwhelmed by pollution and abuse that she begins to fail.
But I would go much further: we too have great capacities that can be harnessed to restore the environment – restorative powers as great as any found in nature. And we have them in abundant supply: intelligence, discrimination, will, judgment, and – most important – love. Do not underestimate the power of these resources. They too can do much to heal the earth, if we give them a chance.
This excerpt is from Eknath Easwaran's book The Compassionate Universe.