A bald eagle flew in front of my car this morning.
I was driving my daughter to school. We had just entered a narrow valley when the bird swooped in front of us. With its bright white head, electric yellow beak, and broad wingspan, it was unmistakable.
After half a mile the eagle rose up into the trees and found a perch. We passed by. We had a schedule to keep.
It amuses me that the bald eagle is the symbol of American courage and patriotism. We all know what Benjamin Franklin had to say about the eagle:
For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character…. The Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides … a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
I concur with Mr. Franklin. I’ve been chased by a tom (a male turkey) before. He was just guarding his hens, but I was glad I had my running shoes on. They’re faster on their feet than you’d think.
Many years ago, wild turkeys were released around the hills where I now live. They’ve thrived despite the coyotes, cougars, bobcats and bear. They keep safe by sticking close together. The flock has grown to over 30 birds. When they sense danger, they simply take flight in a clatter of wings.
Is that courage?
I think so.
Isn’t it courageous to live your life on the ground, surrounded by things that could kill you? Yet wild turkeys aren’t fearful birds. They have chicks, they forage out in the open, and they take comfort in the strength of numbers. Their vulnerability doesn’t faze them.
We can learn a lot about ourselves by the symbols we choose for courage.
For me, the bald eagle is a symbol of a certain kind of popular courage. He is a loner, with a sharp beak and intimidating physique. If attacked, a bald eagle simply swoops away unharmed. Because of his size, he has few predators. If looks could kill, the bald eagle would slay the field.
But surely courage is much more than looking impressive and casting a long shadow over your enemies.
To me, there’s something infinitely braver about a bird that gathers his loved ones close and sends the vulnerable to safety while distracting the enemy with foolish gobbles and fluttering feathers.
No one expects a turkey to attack. The tom capitalizes on the element of surprise. Even if what he does is stupid and he pays the price with his life, the flock lives on. He was smart after all.
You need courage when you don’t have big muscles, big guns, or a big head.
As any kid faced with a playground bully knows, courage grows in direct proportion to vulnerability. The scrawnier you are, the more courage you need.
Some of the bravest people in the world have had to become brave because they don’t want to see those they love get hurt.
It’s the courage of a Mama Bear. Many new mothers are surprised to discover the steel in their spine when it comes to protecting their children. When you have something to defend, you fight.
That’s different than eagle courage. It’s the courage of the vulnerable, not the strong. The vulnerable don’t just fight for themselves. They fight for all of us who are watching.
It’s the kind of courage seen in a cancer patient baring her bald head to the world. The courage of the three-year-old facing a death-defying ramp in his tricycle. The courage of the teenage girl who says no to the popular crowd urging her to take a spliff.
When you have something to lose and you make the difficult choice, even if it means ridicule, pain, or social death, then your bravery counts.
You don’t have to be a U.S. Marine to be courageous. You simply have to be a vulnerable human being faced with a situation where you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.
I’d take turkey courage over eagle courage any day.