Thoughts on Individuality

My sister runs a rescue for domestic rabbits, American, European, lop-earned – the sort people buy at Easter, then toss away. What better way to live? She says each bunny has a personality, which got me thinking about individuality – and people.

More modestly, I have bird feeders, always grouped birds by species, chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, finches – never attributed personality to just one.

Then, last week something happened, reminding me to get out of my head, set aside Peterson’s Guide, and think for myself, harder about individuality.

With these outdoor birds – and two high-personality dogs – I also have a parakeet named Grant, either for Ulysses S. or Cary, take your pick.

The dogs are individuals, but the parakeet is what got my full attention. If you do not have one, what follows will seem odd. If you do, it will be old hat. Here it is.

Grant insists on being an individual, often showcasing his personality early in the morning. One way is engaging in non-stop conversation with birds out his window.

Observed closely, he does not address each the same way, nor even ones that look alike the same, but seems to address them individually, thoughts fitted to the flyer.

Nor are his remarks, alternately streams of hurried conversation, bold outbursts, and humble murmuring random. He will sit and watch one seed sifter, then speak. He will pause for some, jump into it with others, attentive to what he sees.

He begins his morning lectures, boasting, berating, eagerly watching and murmuring near five a.m., continues through the day, now and then turning to bark at the dogs, a trick they taught him, which he now uses back on them.

When night falls, like clockwork he climbs to the top of his cage, goes quiet, puts his head in his feathers, and sleeps, no doubt preparing the next day’s lecture.

But the interesting thing is, if you watch individual outdoor birds – one lone chickadee, an upturned nuthatch, busy woodpecker – they do have personalities.

One chickadee is in and out, another claims ownership of a rung and lingers. One nuthatch is brave, the next cautious catching sight of the inside, maybe deferential. One woodpecker is all about seeds, another likes to hammer the banister.

Grant seems to appreciate all this, talking a blue streak to some, screeching at others, pursuing a more deliberate intra-window friendship with a few.

The main point, or what washed over me, is that he seems to think these fellow fliers are individuals, no two the same, or else puts on a good show of doing so.

While I am hard pressed to differentiate birds and rabbits except by species, they do seem to have personality, some getting what they can and then right off the grid, others happy to linger, grow dependent, trusting the government, namely me.

Of course, I do not tax them, except with observation. Nor does Grant, except for conversation. I do not regulate their speech, prevent them from protecting their young, invade their nests, or try to jail them, except for Grant, who is more a shared resident of the big house, co-keeper of the dogs, and glad to be admired.

So, if rabbits and birds are empirically, unceasingly, self-evidently individuals, loosely grouped by feather, how much more are we – creatures who can think, speak, work, figure things out, and have far greater capacity for individuality?

How much more does it rest with us to become individuals, use our unique capacities to understand the world, learn, grow, and apply our brains, hearts, and muscles to shaping the world round us, not deferring, defaulting, or accepting it?

The government feeds us, often as groups. Too often the government does not see that we are individuals, even works to diminish our individuality. We should not.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a lifetime defender of free thought and individual liberties. He insisted we see ourselves as individuals, become who we could.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else … is the greatest accomplishment,” he wrote – implying a responsibility to do so.

“The only person you are destined to become … is the person you decide to be,” said he. By implication, let no one define you, least the government. Do not be coerced, scolded, scorned or cajoled into conformity. Be yourself.  

Sometimes – not always but sometimes – I awake to hear Grant aflutter, being himself, vigorously conversing with birds on the other side of the glass, and wonder. Maybe identity politics is “for the birds” – or not even for the birds!   

Grant loves to chatter, and seems to live by Emerson’s invitation: “Write it on your heart, that every day is the best day in the year.” Pondering Grant and his pals, I recall another Emerson adage, breezier: “Be silly, be honest, be kind.” Nothing could be easier.  

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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