Freer than Birds?

Many years ago I heard that the old saying, “free as a bird,” is misleading. Ornithologists who have studied bird-flight patterns have discovered that their routes are remarkably limited. Our feathered neighbors have highly goal-directed flight plans. They don’t just flap around for the fun of it (at least not most of the time).

Although I have not investigated this matter, it does seem plausible that birds use a small fraction of potential airspace, and we can say something similar about people. Each of us can choose from an astonishing range of possibilities, but we typically go round and round in the same routines. Some routinization is necessary, but no doubt we could greatly expand our “flight patterns.”

I’ve been thinking lately about applying common sense to uncommon situations, and this would be one way to expand one’s range of possibilities.

I’m remembering an “Aha!” I experienced at a conference on consciousness studies a few years ago. Ironically, in focusing on the theme of consciousness I started noticing unconsciousness everywhere I turned. At the plenary presentations, for example, I was struck by the way highly competent individuals seemed unable to handle extremely simple tasks. One would think prominent authors who have spoken in public hundreds of times would be aware of how close they should stand to a microphone in order to be heard. Not so. Furthermore several famous speakers showed us slides that were absolutely illegible in a large auditorium. Nor did most of them bother to define technical terms. In one session four experts discussed quantum mechanical effects within microtubules. Not one of them defined “microtubules,” even though they knew that this conference included many who were unfamiliar with their particular field of study. Evidently microtubules are little doohickeys inside of our cells, but I would have liked something beyond the notion that it’s a teeny-tiny biological whatchamcallit.

Our intellectual sophistication is partly the result of specific training for specific situations. Like rats who have been moved to an unfamiliar maze, once we are outside of our usual social and vocational context we may suddenly overlook what “ought” to be obvious.

I’d like to watch for opportunities to cope more effectively with unfamiliar, uncomfortable situations. Perhaps this practice could help me become freer than birds.

Having gone off-topic for a couple of weeks I’ll come back to theism and atheism in my next post.

Roger Christan Schriner

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