As I drive around the corner, a tiny dark shape appears on the road through the fog. It’s already past midnight and I’m longing for bed, but I pull over and get out of the car.
A pigeon is sitting still in the middle of the lane. I crouch down close to it and I see that one leg is retracted protectively.
I approach the bird with a towel and it stumbles in circles.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I scoop it into my hands and hold it as carefully as possible but the pigeon cries out.
“It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
I lay the pigeon down underneath a bush.
In bed that night, I think about why holding the pigeon “stopped” me. Realizing the rarity of being within touching distance of a wild animal makes me feel disconnected from the natural world, but realizing the rarity of being an active witness makes me feel disconnected from my humanity.
How many times have I been silent while witnessing an act of discrimination on public transit? How many times have I kept walking when being addressed by a panhandler? How many times have I neglected to ask if a stranger who may be struggling needed help?
In his book Becoming Human, Jean Vanier retells the biblical story of the beggar Lazarus in order to illustrate the gulf that exists between the privileged and the poor.
“What is the abyss that separates people? Why are we unable to look Lazarus straight in the eye and listen to him?
I suspect that we exclude Lazarus because we are frightened that our hearts will be touched if we enter into a relationship with him. If we listen to his story and hear his cry of pain we will discover that he is a human being.”1
Pulling over to hold the pigeon reminded me of how easy it is to remain isolated and ignore the needs of others. As an educator, I know that I must model being an active witness and allow my heart to work past fear so that it may be touched by compassion.
1 Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2008), 70.