A murmuration of starlings described in a recent newspaper article caught my attention. The writer was transfixed by its beauty. To me, an individual starling appears rather ungainly; a goofy-looking pest. But seeing a thousand of these birds in sweeping flight, twisting and turning with graceful movement, gives meaning to the murmuring sounds they make while soaring, diving and changing direction. It shows that unremarkable individuals can be transformed when they operate in tandem.
Applied to us mere mortals, we as individuals have our own innate value but we can find transformative meaning when we embrace a common purpose.
Scientists observing the starlings’ seemingly random directional shifts have found that the turn of one bird changing course immediately draws others to follow. Each individual starling coordinates instantaneous shifts with the seven birds nearest it. Those measuring such things think they might be able to explain such behavior and then make predictions and useful applications.
We do know that as we measure our own behavior, we are apt to see patterns and motivations. We also see that the role of the individual human being is intertwined with others. Sociologists call it group dynamics. In the labor movement, we call it solidarity.
There are several ways we can apply these insights. The first is to resist allowing individual bad events to depress us. Instead, we should look at the whole picture. Saying, “How much worse can it get?” can bog us down and limit what we think we can do. Political pollsters have added a new category to their surveys: the enthusiasm gap. It measures how much voters are beaten down by the day-to-day unfolding of bad news. Depression can be debilitating. How do we snap out of it?
For one thing, we are part of a great, sweeping labor movement. Maybe we should take a step back and look at our own mysterious murmuration. The incremental progress you and I and our forebears have brought about has always been subject to twists and turns and obstacles that can stall our achievements. We shouldn’t focus on the daily barriers but rather the long-range forward movement that can inspire us.
Another application can be the dynamic interaction of the individual and that person’s chosen associates. I didn’t come from a labor background. For me, it was a cultural and religious context that emphasized social justice and tolerance. Consciously choosing to become involved in political action and teacher unionism, I found that individuals with strong values and viewpoints can join with others of like mind and find optimism and dignity even when the worst is thrown at us.
Let’s overcome pandemic malaise and fly above the daily bad news and events. We can beat back the enthusiasm gap.
Let’s focus on the beauty and the forward motion of our accomplishments, those already achieved and those still in progress. Our June RTC meeting welcomed political action back into our lives. There is important campaign and organizational work to do. Let’s do it with good old union optimism.