The next morning after the Bobby McFerrin concert, I sit on the deck of yet another Finnish friend’s summer house overlooking the lake. (Seems like everyone I meet here has a summer house on the lake!). The sun is shining and the birds are singing and while I’m appreciating it in my usual general sense, my friend Elina is pointing out the specific calls and naming the bird singers. I’ve made my attempts at knowing and recognizing the local plants, trees and birds at different times in my life—after all, it’s only polite to at least know your neighbor’s name—but with mixed success and perseverance. So I am impressed with Elina’s knowledge and even more charmed with her stories about her different feathered friends.
One that struck me was how when the nightingale returns from India and starts his melodious song, the other birds seem to get quiet. Kind of like Fats Waller with Art Tatum or people around Bobby McFerrin. As if the song is so exquisite, the other birds not only pause to admire it, but perhaps think, “Why bother to sing? My song is so uninspired next to this!”
But as Thoreau once commented, “The woods would be silent indeed if no birds sang except those that sang best.” And as pretty as the nightingale’s song is, it would indeed be boring if it was the only voice. Every song contributes to the choir of the forest and is somehow necessary. God may be in the house, but many gods need to be in the trees.
I’ve always been attracted to religions who recognize that divine forces are plural—from the Hindu pantheon to the Greek gods to the African Orishas to the Catholic saints to the Tibetan Buddhist deities. Reducing the grand polyphony of the gods (or intelligences or crops or plant/animal species) to a single God is to narrow the range. Diversity is as vital to the world of Spirit as it is to the rainforest and human culture.
Monotheism took a great hold on Western civilization, but at a great price, spilling over into One Way thinking in politics, religion, farming, sociology, business, education. This either/or mentality has wreaked havoc as each “My way or the highway” group pits itself against the other—Christians/Muslims, Communists/Capitalists, Republicans/ Democrats and on and on. The both/and divergent thinking the future demands begins with recognizing the plural nature of a healthy ecosystem, culture or spiritual thought, the idea that each point of view in healthy conversation with the other has something vital to contribute.
Elina says that after a day of listening in awe to the nightingale, the other birds start singing again, accept their song for what it is—no possibility of changing it, after all—and the forest is alive with its multiple voices again. At last night’s concert, Bobby could have strutted like a peacock and invited the audience to admire his prowess, but instead he became what Joseph Campbell called “transparent to transcendance,” using his gifts to invite others to sing (and dance) and bring the whole forest alive with polyphonic song.
“Use what talents you have” said Thoreau, and again, what choice do we have? The whole point of listening to inspired musicians, reading poets, going to scientific lectures, listening to a Zen master’s talk, is not to become a “fan” and just admire them, but to be inspired by their dedication and then get back to our own work with renewed determination. And that work for me is help each student I teach, of any age, find their voice—in any of the plural intelligences— and feel confident that it is necessary and welcome. Whether they be nightingales or crows, a forest filled with just one voice is a poor world indeed. Let us all sing!