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Misplaced Lessons – Leaving Well Enough Alone


Originally appeared in St. Petersburg Times, 2005

From the “Truth is Stranger than Fiction” files”: We once hit a bird with our car while on our way to the veterinarian’s with a dying mouse.

Technically, the bird hit us – but “Really!” The truth of this tale, though, lies not in the oddity of the event, but in the occasional vice of not leaving well enough alone.

The mouse, Betsey, was my then six year old daughter’s pet, and it was ill. The bird – an ardent male cardinal lusting after an evidently more athletic female – flew broadside into our minivan. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, but our convergent paths were well determined by then and there was nothing I could do except stop after the impact.

With my two little girls voicing their concerns from the back, I got out to look for the bird. It was there, in the road, flopping around piteously. I felt awful. How fortunate, I thought, that we were already on the way to the vet’s. We had some towels in the car, and I carefully wrapped the bird in them.

The vet announced the bad news for our mouse – it had to be put down, and was returned to my daughter in a little bow-tied box. And then the vet announced promising news about the bird: it would probably be alright. Nothing was broken, and it simply appeared to be in shock. I could check back with them later in the day for a progress report.

We went home quietly, shaken by the all the life and death drama around us, hopeful that the bird would pull through and help set the world back on a more even keel. We buried Betsey with suitable honors, and a few hours later, I called the vet.

The bird was fine, they said. They would let it go there, in a little wooded lot behind the office, if that was okay with me.

That’s when I did it.

That’s when I decided to do “something beautiful” and “thought provoking,” and orchestrate a lesson in “doing the right thing,” in how “things always work out for the best” and in the way “God cares for the smallest sparrow.”

So I told the kids the bird was fine and that we’d go back and get it. At the vet’s, they doubtfully handed us the bird, ensconced in a white box, and told us to be careful and not stress it too much. We drove back home slowly and carefully, not handling the box.

At home, we went into the back yard and I took the bird out of the box, having visions of releasing it like the dove of peace. I opened my hands and the bird lay there, frightened and unmoving. I thought perhaps it needed a more dramatic boost, like we’d seen on nature shows. So I threw the bird into the air, waiting for the restorative breeze of flight to blow against my cheeks.

The bright red bird fell like a rock, dead at my feet.

I have never before or since been so horrified at anything I have ever done.

The children stared at the bird, and then at me. We checked it over and confirmed that it was, indeed, dead, and then buried it in its white box, next to the mouse. My children, amazingly, gratefully, accepted my weak alibi that the bird was probably more injured by the accident than we’d all realized. But I knew better. I felt like a murderer, like an absolutely irredeemable fraud and charlatan, and like the worst mother in the world.

In my zeal to not only do good, but to look good while teaching my children some sort of enduring life lesson at the same time, I overlooked one the principle laws of parenting, teaching, and living:

Leave well enough alone!

I mean that in the very literal sense of the words. The bird had, in fact, recovered. It was well and I should have left it alone.

A wild bird expert later confirmed that for me. Wild birds with light injuries or just suffering from shock typically do much better when left alone and not handled.

I was reminded of this now old family story (that I only tell sheepishly and with great humility) when I was briefly tempted to round up my kids to “teach” them something recently. I don’t even remember what it was now. But when I looked around for them, I found them all playing together – my 11 year old son and his 13 and 15 year old sisters. They were laughing and running around the yard and having a great time.

I thought of the cardinal. I looked out at the kids. They were well. So I left them alone.

As soon as you have to go to any great length to teach something, or to point something out, the lesson is moot, I’ve often found. It’s great when everything clicks, when an event or observation happen at just the right moment, and everyone is there to “get it.”

But we can’t share every lesson or insight. Sometimes, the best we can do is appreciate the moment all alone.

And then leaving well enough alone becomes a lesson in itself.

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