Hummingbirds are frequent visitors to the feeders above our porch rail, alerting us to their presence by the surprisingly loud hum of of their wings as they flit from plant to feeder to plant before shooting out into the near distance and disappearing into the trees. They are great fun to observe, though we seldom get the chance to see what they actually look like. Instead we are left with the awareness that their silhouette has come and gone and a vague sense of the details of their appearance. But today was different, this morning I saw a hummingbird hovering over the slender branch of a butterfly bush about five feet from my rocking chair.
And I do mean hovering. From a distance it might have looked as though the bird was sitting still — taking a breather while calmly observing the world from it’s sheltered vantage point. But in truth, it’s balancing act was the result of wings beating so fast that they were all but invisible. I know that there are times when a hummingbird is actually being still and not beating it’s wings at the average rate of 80 times per second. In fact, I’ve read that they spend most of the day on a perch and that when they sleep they go into a state called torpor, slowing their metabolisms to about 7% of normal; but this particular hummingibrd was not resting, even though it seemed to be working very hard at giving that impression.
I’ve been like that in my life, having been brought up to believe that I was only worth as much as I could produce. Folks like me are often very much like hummingbirds. We find it all but impossible to be still and even when someone or something prevails upon us to “sit down and rest” our aura of coiled-spring nervous energy is painfully obvious to those around us. After all, they never know when we may suddenly take off at a run to complete some just-remembered task — the rocking of our our abruptly vacated chairs the only indication that we really were there just a moment ago.
But, disconcerting as that may be to our friends and families, our difficulties with stillness are even more problematic for our own psyches, especially when our ceaselessly fidgety “resting” burns more calories than a half hour of honest exercise and doesn’t deliver any of the cardio-vascular benefit!
I don’t know if hummingbirds have spiritual guides to remind them to chill once in a while, but I do know that when we allow ourselves to be governed by nervous tension and the nagging fear that we ought to be doing something every waking moment, we are on treading on treacherous ground– physically and spiritually. Peace and quiet, rest and Sabbath, recreation and renewal are holy gifts to be received and enjoyed. And unlike hummingbirds, which are surprisingly long-lived (the three-gram, ruby-throated sort we see from our front porch lives as long as nine years while migrating to and from the tropics as many as 17 times), we are not so hardy. We shorten our life expectancy and diminish our quality of life to the extent that we neglect our need for stillness in our lives and in our souls.
So, even it if is just for thirty seconds, sit down, take a deep breath and stop flapping around. Receive stillness as the gift that it is and be thankful that you don’t have to beat your wings up to 6,912,000 times a day. Or if that doesn’t convince you to appreciate the gift of stillness, consider the survival challenges of the open-sea wintering-over puffin…