“Small Acts” is an original essay written for publication on this site and made available free to readers.
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by Joel Caris
I KEEP WATCHING A HUMMINGBIRD at the feeder in our backyard. He comes and goes throughout the day. When I catch sight of him feeding, I stand transfixed—most often in the kitchen staring out our back window, but sometimes outside, perhaps as I am hanging a load of laundry to dry or taking one down, my task bringing me close to the feeder. This hummingbird—a male Anna’s hummingbird, if I am not mistaken—does not care if I am close; he comes to feed all the same, as though the world is his alone, as I sometimes I imagine it is. He comes with a familiar buzz of those impossibly fast wings, and he leaves with the familiar chirp of his particular song. He stays close by, perhaps nesting in the walnut tree that towers over us from the neighbor’s yard.
When I am outside is best, because the usual place I find myself standing when he comes to visit is to the south, facing generally north, and when the sun is out it catches and illuminates his brilliant plumage. He arrives in a flurry of hunger, or anticipation, and alights on the feeder and dips his head to drink; and when he raises it in consideration the sun catches against the red feathers on his head and the color shines forth as fire. He dips again and drinks and raises his head in appraisal and all the time I stand in amazement at the beauty of the world.
At the call of some internal clock he leaves in a flash. Usually it goes like this: he raises in an instant several inches into the air, then he turns and flits off into the ether. It is easier to see this from the kitchen, for my view is wider and more encompassing, and he moves so fast. Outside, though, I hear him; and while I may not glimpse as much of his overall trajectory, the world is made more alive through the sound of his wings, the accompanying distant chirps, and the sharp chill of the air.
Sometimes I think we have a small connection. I have caught myself looking out from the kitchen window in a sudden inspiration and finding, there on the feeder, my friend; and having him an imperceptible moment later lifting his own head as though in recognition of my attention. Surely some connection does exist. I put out the food for him and he eats of it, and that is a connection of some kind in and of itself. I have felt it throughout my life, with pets and livestock and wild animals, with this overwhelming and ongoing desire to nourish other living beings. But of course, some of it is my imagination, too, or simply a wanting: I have many times looked out the window in hope of his presence only to find the feeder empty. What carries me forward to the next anticipatory glance is knowing that he will be there again, that the fade of his hunger is always and only temporary. I know there are many times he feeds without me seeing, but I wish I could watch them all.
This, then, is one of the great pleasures I have, to feed and nourish another being. It’s a small joy rooted in a small act, yet both the joy and the act strike me as important. They are composed of direct action, regularity, caring, and relationship. The act is a simple one, requiring more care and attention than actual effort. The feeding is a kind of tiny covenant, with my offering the food and taking on the responsibility of feeding, and the recipient eating freely from the offering. Of course, the covenant may very well be one way; I do not know if the hummingbird senses any kind of consciousness behind the filling of the feeder, or in what ways, if at all, he understands it differently than a flower. But then, that too—the hummingbird and the flower—is a covenant, a relationship between two beings, and it may well be that the hummingbird recognizes that relationship even more so than I do when eating. Does the hummingbird give thanks to the flowers that feed him? Does he impart warmth and gratitude to those blossoms as he flits from one to the other, dipping his beak? It would not surprise me if he does.
But whether the hummingbird recognizes the intention of another being behind the feeder or if it is simply a convenient source of food that he takes for granted, the act of filling it and feeding him takes on a great importance and resonance for me. It is a daily affirmation of the best I am and a reminder of my humanity. It is an offering to the world at large, even if small in its significance. And it is an entering into relationship with the non-human world; a reminder to myself and a confirmation to whatever great beings watch over us that I am part of some greater web of being, and that as such I hold responsibility to its greater well-being. That may seem too much to load onto the simple act of boiling sugar and water and pouring the resultant nectar into a plastic mold, yet it does all that and more for me. And that in itself is a small revelation.
Why so much about a hummingbird feeder and its visitor? Such a simple thing would perhaps not always catch my attention to this degree. However, in this back and forth with another creature I have started to reclaim my humanity from this strange and trying year.
Yes, that is a large claim but I don’t think it’s a false one. I do not yet understand all the ways that 2020 has stripped me to the core and left me wanting of some new recognition of myself. It is only in recent weeks that I’ve started to emerge from the fog. The past nine months have been a challenge at most every level—from personal to professional, from societal to cultural. I say that not for sympathy; I am better off than most, and secure in my finances, and stable in my home and marriage; there are many others far worse off. But there have been too many moments this year when I did not quite recognize myself, or did not even particularly like myself.
I have not yet sussed out all the reasons for this. But there is something in my personality—something I have yet to gain a full handle on, but hope to before this current life of mine ends—that works well at the small and personal level but begins to fall apart at broader levels. I think it is a loss of empathy, a dangerous urge to lash out at archetypes—or perhaps stereotypes would be the more appropriate term. When I get caught up in opinion about national politics or cultural movements, for instance, I too often lose sight of the personal behind them: the individual people and their experiences, the human-level events that have shaped these movements. It is not a question of whether or not I agree with the politics or the social movements or the cultural mores, but whether or not I am able to come to them with my humanity intact, with an intent to engage them at a personal and empathetic level.
Of course, that is not always easy when you are dealing with large forces. I cannot interact with a political party or a faction therein at the human level; I am dealing with a structural force, with a gathering that is too large to influence in a single interaction, and that I am in no position to influence anyway. Nor can I approach proposed legislation in a similar way; it is not a person to converse with, but the result of larger, group forces—and ones, again, that I hold little to no sway over.
Yet behind these are people. Political factions and legislation roll up from the actions of many, and in that reality is an opportunity to regain the personal and to approach some small piece of these processes at the human level. Still, though, it’s a challenge. I have minimal influence on the political process, after all. I can call and write, and I can vote, and if I want to I can work for a candidate or a piece of legislation or an issue, and I can go out and march or yell or protest; but my impact will be tiny. That does not mean it will be nothing, but it will be insignificant.
That does not make it worthless. There are people who do these things and thrive on it, and there are people who do these things and manage to create change by it. For the most part, I am not one. I do vote, of course, and I call and write at times, and I have done other things, including volunteer and protest; but I do not thrive on most these actions. Our politics frustrates and angers me, and in engaging it I as often as not feel the fool. Certainly I feel disempowered. Most of all, it focuses my attention on a part of the world I oftentimes hate and that feels like some cruel trick to me: a cruelty purposeful and mean-spirited, perpetrated by people who relish using their power to harm those at their mercy, and to enrich themselves by any means necessary.
Those feelings are not entirely fair; but I suspect they are mostly fair. And this year has served largely to inflame those feelings. That has driven cycles of anger and despair in me and at times has left me feeling divorced from my better self, at the tumultuous mercy of a wide range of raging emotion. It has crept into other areas of my life, as well (or perhaps been inflamed by other areas; the chaos, after all, has not been limited to the national level, at least in my experience). And in the partial isolation brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, I imagine my worst tendencies have been enhanced through my reduced interactions with other people, friends in particular. With more time spent in my head, and less in conversation and interaction with actual people, I allow more time and energy directed toward abstract anger and frustration.
This is not new for me, though I believe it has been exacerbated by this year’s particular challenges. My wife has criticized certain past writings of mine, particularly those of a political bent. She says it too often does not sound like me; that there is too much anger in these writings; that I may tend toward ranting. Sometimes it happens in conversation, too, when I become riled by some frustration or resentment. But something my wife once said to me has stuck in my head: that in these instances of anger, I am not the person she knows.
I can’t completely agree with that; I am that person too, after all. But I don’t know if she means her statement so exactingly, either. What I suspect she means is that I am not, in those instances—in her perspective—the person she best knows. I do not embody what attracts her to me, what has made her willing to make her life with me. And if that’s the case, I cannot really argue with her, because I sense it myself: that lack of empathy, that retreat from the emotional connection I so often feel for this sorry state of humanity, in favor of a turning toward hate and anger and accusation. I know what she’s saying because I feel it in myself, and I can see and hear the difference, even when I am carried away in the emotion of resentment.
What to do about that is a challenging question. It’s not a solution to repress or ignore the feelings. My resentment often comes from an honest anger at the abuses of our social, political, and economic structures, and the powerful people behind them. I grow angry at the unnecessary pain and destruction inflicted upon individuals and communities across this country, as well as that inflicted on all the non-human world. We are a mess; I challenge anyone of any political persuasion to deny that (surely only a politician would try). I see little purpose in denying any of this.
Yet to wallow in it is pointless, too, and doing so, if it does anything, simply strips me of my better self. I am reminded of a quote I have referenced before, from William Catton Jr.’s brilliant book Overshoot. “The end of exuberance,” he writes, referencing the resultant consequences from our collective wasteful ways, “was the summary result of all our separate and innocent decisions to have a baby, to trade a horse for a tractor, to avoid illness by getting vaccinated, to move from a farm to a city, to live in a heated home, to buy a family automobile and not depend on public transit, to specialize, exchange, and thereby prosper” (p. 177).
I am not typically one to carry quotes around with me and come back to them again and again, but this quote is the exception that proves the rule. I have been thinking of it semi-regularly for something like eight or nine years now, since I first read Overshoot. It has haunted me that entire time. There is something dark and frightening to the idea that the terrible predicament we find ourselves in is not due to great evil schemes, but instead a vast collection of individual decisions that in most instances have been perfectly defensible. Yes, there are social superstructures that help to guide and direct those defensible decisions, but even those largely boil down to a collection of decisions made often at the individual level, and often made rationally in the context of our cultural understanding of the world.
However, when I read Catton’s quote, I find it not only disturbing, but—perhaps paradoxically—a reminder of the core humanity behind this broken society we find ourselves in, and I am left feeling sympathy for the decisions that have brought us here. I have made so many of the same sort of ones myself, and I don’t know that any of them were made due to a sense of malice, but rather in pursuit of some kind of comfort, whether it be physical or emotional or otherwise.
The power of Catton’s quote, however, lies in its humanity. It breaks the systemic destruction down into mundane acts, and it’s there that he restores the terrible humanity of what we’ve wrought. It also is there that I am able to rediscover my own empathy—to move past the anger and frustration, move past the comforting righteousness to engage at the level of the individual and recognize that most of us are simply trying to live decent lives. That does not absolve us of our choices, of course, and we will pay the great price of them; already we are, and I have little doubt that we will see far more of the dark bill due us during my lifetime. But it does place a perspective on the issue that helps move me away from the more useless of my hatreds and back toward something constructive and instructive.
The world is a mess; but what then will I do about it? I can ignore it, charge forward recklessly, and sometime soon discover what walls I am destined to hit. I could wallow in it, rage against the cruelty of the world, and lash out in a fury of anger and hatred that accomplishes nothing. I can give up; lay down and die; absolve myself of the hard work ahead by escaping into oblivion (or whatever comes next, and perhaps a harder road instead of the sought-after absolution). Or I can accept the condition of this world, confront it head on, and work to make it better.
I choose the latter. I don’t always do it well, but my goal is always to find some way to make the world better. The way one does that is highly personal, and many of the ways I spoke about earlier in which I am not particularly interested in engaging are the exact ways others might come to the world in hopes of making it better. I do not deride that, but it is not my path. Mine, to the degree I’ve been able to figure it out so far, is rooted in small acts.
Small acts of feeding, of gifting, of connection, of friendship—these are the ways that I look to better the world. It is in small personal acts, too, to lessen my impact on the world: hang-drying clothes, composting, preserving food, gardening, walking instead of driving, reducing waste, buying my food from local farmers and ranchers. It is in volunteering, joining organizations, small acts of charity. It is in helping friends and family. For the most part, it is not in working to change our systems—not in the way we normally think of it, anyway—but in small acts of humanity and connection.
The main reason I take this approach is because it’s what makes me feel good. That’s the little secret here: I could beat my head against the wall trying to change the world all at once, and make myself miserable in the process while achieving little or nothing. Or I could sneak behind the scenes and make tiny changes here and there, impacts easy to overlook but that bring me joy and satisfaction while connecting me with others. That makes a difference, too—I’ve seen it. And it helps remind myself, and I’d like to think others, that we are all part of a community that we can support and try to make better, or that we can destroy and let die in the gutter. We make those choices day in and day out, whether or not we are trying for bigger change; so why not take those daily opportunities to better ourselves and thus the world we’re a part of?
I think a great many of the challenges I’ve faced this year have come from the sense that I’ve become divorced from too many of those daily opportunities—or that my ways of enacting them have been stripped of me. Honestly, many of these acts are nothing grand, are insignificant on their face: conversations with friends, attendance at a Grange meeting, reading a book to a friend’s child. These are such small things that are yet so important, weaving through my mundane life the sense of community and connection that is critical to my well being and sense of place in the world. Many of them have been taken from me on a temporary basis thanks to this ongoing pandemic.
But it’s more than that, and here is where my own responsibility comes in. It also is where I have allowed my mind not just to go, but where to reside. In this year’s upheavals, I have given far too much time to internal grousing at the state of the world. I have let my thoughts spiral off into useless, angry diatribes and my attention be monopolized by the machinations of people I dislike. I have allowed the indulgence of righteous anger, all in service of nothing but a fragile ego and misguided will.
To what end? Only to sadness and disruption, to a darkness and self-pity that accomplishes nothing. What is odd about it all is that the alternative was always there, as well. For whatever time I spent indulging useless anger or hatred, or allowing myself to be distracted into my worst impulses, I also engaged my better ones. This year, as challenging as it may have been, has seen me better focused on my writing than perhaps ever before. It has been a year of daily practices—of meditation and ritual and other activities besides—that are, to my mind, one of my better accomplishments in this life. It has been a year of reflection, of consideration, and of steadiness during trying times. Not always, of course—I have spent the last however many words alluding to all the ways it hasn’t been—but I actually have done much good for myself during this long, convoluted year.
What is unfortunate is how I also spent as much time as I did undoing myself. But then, that is part of the journey; it’s at least partly through those silly mistakes that I come to better understand myself. And it’s in the contrast between the behavior that doesn’t serve me and that which does that I discover the intricacies of what should be next. Filling a hummingbird feeder with sugar water and watching who drinks from it is really not such a big deal; the reason I have gone on at length about it is because it has served as such a stark reminder of what I’m supposed to be doing with this life. It’s a lovely thing, feeding a hummingbird; but I don’t know that it should be such a transformative experience. It became one by way of the perspective it brought back to me.
With that perspective has come a renewed happiness, a reminder of my humanity, and a recommitment to the kinds of work that make me a better person. Better not necessarily in a moral sense—though there is that—but in a pleasure in being alive. I want to be satisfied with my life, in times both easy and difficult—to truly enjoy it. And so navigating back to that kind of a satisfaction in my day to day even as this year’s challenges continue and potentially greater ones rise on the horizon strikes me as a real accomplishment worth savoring—as well as something to do my best to continue and carry forward into the months to come.
Thankfully, I better understand now some of the best ways to do that. I have a hummingbird to guide me, after all—and a remembrance of what it is to be human, of what it is to be woven well into the world and how best to do that weaving.
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