I watched with interest when a fake owl was placed on top of a building in Cambridge near my office in town. It was put there to frighten away pigeons who had colonised this high rooftop and established it as their toilet with a view.
Initially the imposing owl’s presence worked wonders. The pigeons who had gathered previously en masse, were exceedingly wary of this new, approximately 40 centimetre high ‘intruder’ on their patch. The owl stood there – stock still, its steely gaze, enough to ward off incoming pigeons who found other places to ‘perch’ .
Over time I started to notice the braver ones among the pigeon fraternity started venturing back along the roof ridge line – but still, they kept a nervous distance away from the fake owl. I’d see them, heads cocked on the side, eyeing it, anticipating it making a move. Ever increasingly, pigeons began returning and seemingly, with the passage of time, the fake owl was no longer perceived as a threat. It wasn’t long before pigeon confidence was restored to the point where many returned to the roof, the bravest ones exhibiting blatant disregard for the owl.
This week I laughed to myself, as I saw yet another pigeon sitting brazenly on the owl’s head. They’ve evidently conquered their fear and now cheekily flaunt their triumph over the ‘owl’. That’s what easy familiarity can do I guess.
It got me thinking about how over familiarity can get us into trouble. Some things in life must be approached with caution – healthy appropriate ‘fear’ is the essence of self-preservation. Enlightened self-interest preserves us from harming ourselves by engaging in reckless stupidity or wrongdoing which can so easily become addictive.
I read a book in which pain was characterised as “the gift which nobody wants.” It made a deep impression on me as it described people with leprosy who inadvertently damaged their hands because their nerves provided no sensation. Unwittingly picking up scalding items without caution, they repetitively did irreparable harm to themselves.
The pigeons overcame their cautious fear without repercussion – for us however, there’s things about life, where failing to exercise a healthy avoidance default could be lethal.
While the word ‘sin’ isn’t popular today, engaging in it certainly is. To trivialise sin, becoming casually familiar with it, is very damaging. To contrast my picture of the pigeon sitting on the owl’s head with wilful pursuit of sin, let’s remember it’s never benign – we can’t flirt with it and escape unscathed. We all have God-given conscience. ‘Con-science’ comes from two Latin words, ‘with knowledge’. Conscience is designed to keep us from self-harming or harming others. We’ll either listen to conscience or argue with it.
To continually over-ride our conscience results in catastrophe. It’s akin to ignoring the oil light flashing on the car dashboard and telling ourselves “It’ll be ok!” when it most certainly won’t be.
Listen to that inner voice… that built-in sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. To persist in over-riding it, will ‘cauterise’ it to the point that it ceases to work.