Breaking the Pecking Order
A few months ago I house-sat for my sister’s family while they vacationed in Amish Country. Well, housesitting may be a generous term, I really “farm-sat”, which is everything it sounds like, and more. At this particular time there was an influx of babies on the farm, specifically a big box full of baby chicks. A few days before the family set sail, I went over to receive my instructions for caring for the little darlings. Food, water, heat lamp… how hard could it be!
On the first day of taking over the caregiving responsibilities I joyfully stepped into the room with the baby chicks, took one or two out of the box and ooh’d and ahh’d over how cute and soft they were. I noticed that every now and then one would peck one of the others, I had heard of “pecking order” before and figured this was just a natural part of the animal kingdom. But as I watched a little longer, I realized that one or two of the birds was being pecked a lot! I would stand over the box and yell at the bullies, “NO little chicken! Don’t do that!” It was so sad, but I couldn’t spend my whole day refereeing baby birds, I had to go to work! So I left, feeling bad for the chickens, but knowing there was nothing I could do.
By the time I got home from work that night, the situation had escalated, several of the chicks were actually bloody, with open wounds on their backs and tails, so much so that their feathers were being picked clean off! I was horrified!
After a few frantic texts back and forth with my sister, we decided that they must have grown to the point where there were too many, too close together; so I make-shifted another box as a rescue home for the domestic violence victims. Only, before long, the number of the injured outnumbered the bullies! In fact, I soon realized that even the birds who were being bullied would turn right around and peck someone else! I couldn’t possibly isolate out all of the bullies because there wasn’t just a “pecking order” anymore, this was a full-out survivor scenario!
I tried sorting them by breed next, wondering if perhaps some breeds were just more aggressive than others. No, luck. It was every chick for itself. I finally resorted to rotating them through three sets of housing: a box for the most injured, a half-way house, and a small box for the few chickens who weren’t pecked at all… obviously the instigators, but no more guilty than the others that had kept the violence going.
After a few days of this, I happily handed the care of the psycho chickens back over to their owners, who did a little research and figured out the solution. In short, it was a three-part problem: First, they probably were getting just a little too big for their box, which happens quickly. Second, chickens need the right balance of salt in their bodies, when this balance gets out of whack they look to get this from pecking each other… because apparently other chicken’s blood has salt… nasty, but effective. Third, “nature” does work on a level of the strongest survive. For chickens, the sight and smell of blood is like a target, once a chicken has a wound, the other chickens attack it, even if they have the very same wound on their own back.
The solution: more room, adding a source of sodium to their diets, and covering their wounds with an ointment that changed the color and smell so that it would not draw attention and be able to heal.
Why am I telling you this kind of gross story? Because chickens aren’t the only ones with pecking problems.
Have you noticed that most groups of people have pecking orders too? Some have a hierarchy where the strong pick on the weak, others operate on an “every man for himself” philosophy. It’s everywhere, but I see this dynamic most clearly here in the Northeast – where we’re notorious for our quick minds and sarcastic words. Sure, we all say we’re “just kidding” and sometimes we truly are, but kidding is a lot more fun when we’re the ones doing the picking rather than the one begin picked on.
After seeing so clearly with my own eyes the result of being henpecked, and more fully understanding the reason why it happens, I’m convinced that we’re very much like chickens (in this way at least.)
I believe that there are three main reasons why we pick on each other and three good solutions:
1) Close Quarters: Have you noticed that the people you live with (or do life with most often) have an uncanny capacity to drive you absolutely crazy, much more than anyone else? Those things that used to seem cute and quirky, the same characteristics that made them charming now constantly grate on your very last nerve? All of a sudden we find ourselves pick, pick, picking on those little areas that annoy us, maybe with the intention of laughing it off, but also maybe with the intention of bringing the annoying thing to the other persons attention with the hopes that they’ll change.
Solution: Proverbs 26:18-19 says, “Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, “I was only joking!” While this verse is contextually talking about lying or tricking, maybe even practical jokes (but that’s another post), I think it’s interesting that it compares a crazy person with a flame-thrower to a person who uses the “I’m just kidding” excuse to justify wrong behavior. Picking on someone “in jest” is really just poor communication skills and avoiding what could be healthy conflict that brings growth and life. It says, “I’m not bold enough to confront this openly, so I’m going to hint at it in a funny way hoping you get the point.” This is passive aggressiveism and it’s a cancer to relationships. What if we purposed to treat those we are closest too with the most respect, the most honor and the most love of all of our relationships? This necessitates learning how to communicate our likes and dislikes in a way that is constructive rather than destructive. Not an easy task, but one worth pursuing by all accounts.
2) Essential Mineral Deficiency: The little baby chickens somehow instinctually knew that they could get an essential mineral they were lacking by pecking their neighbor. This is totally gross, but kind of amazing when you stop to think about it. It’s also incredibly selfish. It says, I’m the most important one here, so if something in me is lacking, I feel justified in damaging you to satisfy my need. That’s intense, but it is how so many of us live every single day. We feel insecure, so we tear down our friends to make ourselves feel better. We lack confidence in our abilities, so we put down the skills and talents of others to secure our place. We don’t trust God to provide, so we hoard our resources rather than giving generously. We seek to meet our needs by taking from others.
Solution: Perspective. How we view and treat others is directly related to how we view God and how we view ourself in relationship to Him. If we’re doing this whole thing on our own, then we need to watch out for #1 (us) even at the expense of others. But, if we believe that God is the one responsibly for our care, our promotion, and is the one who gives us a fixed identity – one unaffected by circumstances or situations – then we don’t have to take what we need from others. Rather, we get what we need by receiving from God. Then, not only do we not need to pick on those around us, but we can seek to meet their needs out of the abundance we have. We become givers, not takers.
3) Survival of the fittest: You can probably think of that one person in your group that seems to always be the butt of the joke. They’re just so easy to make fun of! They may even make fun of themselves! Their eccentricities (aka. wounds) are like a glowing target that draws you like a moth to flame. They may even have learned to reciprocate jokes, making the pecking seem ok, justified even. But I assure you, the last thing they need is for you to join the crowd and take a peck at their exposed, bleeding backs.
Solution: Break the cycle. The first step is to question if all this pecking is actually a problem or not? Are we able to step back and out of our learned social structures and objectively assess our actions? Is a pecking order really how we want to live and be known? Is this the best representation of Christ that we have to offer? If not, at some point someone has to stop. Someone has to determine that they will no longer participate in this type of communication. Someone has to have the boldness to say, “Hey, you may have a target on your back, but I’m going to choose not to take the cheap shot.” I think this is hardest to do in an established atmosphere of picking. It’s hard to be the one person who says, “Hey guys, this isn’t nice.” You even risk the picking being turned on you. But if breaking the cycle is important enough, that’s a risk we need to take.
Now, some of you, like me most of the time, may truly feel like you’re joking! You may hold no ill-will towards the recipient of that dry or sarcastic comment. Maybe it really was funny! I’m not going to tell you what humor is right and what’s wrong – I’m not fashioning myself as the comic police. In fact, I’m still trying to work this one out for myself – with much trial and error. But what God’s been challenging me with recently is learning how to be funny without it being at the expense of someone else. God has an amazing, sometimes incredibly ironic sense of humor, yet He never has to tear someone down to achieve it. I think God is calling us, as children, made in His image, to a higher level of communication, a more holy humor – I’d like to accept.
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
“Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.”