No place like home

Here is a wee fable to read if you feel like you just don’t fit in at work. Maybe you aren’t meant to?

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”*

There was a time when I was reasonably confident and sociable. I thought I was good at my job too. Working in my current role has changed that.

I don’t quite know what happened. Have I lost my mojo? Have my brain cells depleted from drumming my head against trees too often? Is it my fault? Or is it theirs? I plucked my feathers harshly when I thought of them. My smoky grey chest constricted fractionally. My colleagues did not like me that was for sure. I felt the atmosphere change as soon as I walked into the work-nest. A slight bristle in their feathers; voices lowered so the conversation was just out of my reach; their beaks raised contemptuously.

I passed them one by one until I reached my own tree, ready to start my day’s work.

“Let’s see how small a hole he pecks out the tree today,” I heard Woody in the next tree murmur to his friends. Unfortunately, the wind carried his snide mutterings to my ears. My plumes dipped slightly in resignation because I knew he was right. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t perform as well as my peers. And Lord did I try! I pecked until my beak bled. I worked longer hours than most other birds to try and meet my boss’s expectations. The outcome was always the same. The cavity I pecked out the tree just didn’t match up to what all my other teammates could do. And boy did they let me know it.

I could probably have accepted the situation if it had stopped at me being silently recognised as the weakest link in the flock. But it didn’t. The degradation went further. I was made to sit alone at break times to highlight how different I was. I didn’t even look like them so what chance did I ever have of fitting in! They all looked so slim and splendid with their black, white and red tufts on their crowns; meanwhile, I was more like a round grey splodge. I wasn’t designed to fit in with the in-crowd.

Today was panning out worse than most days. The only thing more horrible than being ostracised at lunchtime was when the group decided to sit with me in fake friendship mode. Their long, sticky tongues were excellent for clearing trees of insects but they excelled even more at subtle-yet-heart piercing put-downs.

Woody sat across from me. “Hey, Cher, can we join you?” I bobbed my head up and down. I didn’t want them to join me but I could never be outright rude, it wasn’t in my nature. My voice stayed silent. I was scared I would say something ridiculous allowing them to go away and laugh at me for days. Woody, unfortunately, didn’t have it in him to stay silent.

“I saw you struggling to get up the tree today. Give us a shout next time and one of us will help you.” This was how it was. There was no outright nastiness; only subtle barbed comments, fired softly to take the smallest chip out of my already thin layer of confidence. The problem was that there had been so many of them aimed at me over the years that the chips had become gaping holes.

Woody lifted his leg and rested it on the chair next to him as if to highlight how strong and perfectly suited to tree climbing his limbs and feet were. I looked at my spindly legs and toes with only three claws and tried not to compare. But of course I did compare, and his jab hit my jugular with ease.

“Never mind, it’s been a tough day for all of us. I can’t wait to blow off steam with everyone later at…” A quick poke in the side-feathers from his friend stopped him mid-sentence. I guess I wasn’t meant to know that they were all heading out to party later. I always knew when they were going out without me though. You couldn’t miss the buzz in the air and the anticipation of a good night ahead. Of course, I never made the cut for the work’s social events. But I had made my peace with that. I decided I would go out a nice soar later and find a spot to settle and read my book. And that’s exactly what I did.

I flew a lot further than normal that night. My wings beating furiously to release some of my frustrations. Twisting and turning, dipping and diving, I ended up far away from home in an unfamiliar, but cosy, place. I settled down and opened up my book. The hours passed quickly and before I knew it the sky had gone from blue to black. It was time to go home.

As I flew back I heard a commotion in the trees below. I could sense fear emanating from the crowd gathered there. “We’re lost!” I heard them squawk to each other. “We should never have flown so far from home. We’re going to get eaten alive!” I recognised the voices of my work colleagues – and didn’t they sound utterly terrified.

A small bubble of emotion rose in my chest. It felt good at first. I was happy. I was happy that they were scared and lost. They deserved it. They were bad people and they deserved bad things to happen to them. I kept on flying. Who cares if predators ate them during the night? The office would be a more pleasant place for it. My ugly words festered in my mind like maggots waiting to burrow deep. Another emotion tried to surface. Guilt. I felt my body being weighed down by it.

What if they did die? Or at the very least got seriously injured. What kind of person would that make me? They might be horrible people but I am not. The weight lifted slightly. The thought maggots paused momentarily. This was a defining moment. My moral instincts kicked in. I wouldn’t leave them. I was better than that. I could sense the way home and I could lead them to safety. The maggots disappeared and the weight lifted completely. I swooped down and called, “Follow me! I know where to go.” And the terrified group did. I had never seen such relieved faces.

“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Woody asked tentatively. I smiled. “Don’t worry. I always know the way home.”

We made it back to familiar territory and I was the hero of the hour, paraded upon their shoulders. I felt so much happier inside than I’d felt for years. But, if I’m honest, it wasn’t because of their changed opinion of me; it was because I knew I had done the right thing when it would have been so much easier to fester in hatred and leave them to suffer.

I slept easy that night because I now knew that the secret to being happy has nothing to do with being popular. Happiness comes from being good and kind and not expecting anything in return for it. You need to be proud of the choices you make and the things you do. That is the key to contentment.

The next day, I walked into the office on a cloud of my making. However, something was different. There was an air of awe in the room and everyone was speaking in hushed tones. An official-looking male was standing at the front of the room. “Cher?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, secretly wondering if I had done anything wrong.

“One of your colleagues informed me of your actions last night. Quite spectacular to find your way home like that. Very special indeed. I believe you may have a gift. There’s actually a select few of you that have it: we call you ‘homing pigeons’ because your sense of direction is second to none.”

I stood in stunned silence, not quite believing what I was hearing. The man continued talking, “We’d need to run a few tests, of course, if you’re up for it. But if you pass them then we really could do with your help in ending the war. You see, we can’t use our radios to send messages to each other as the enemy can intercept them. We need you to carry them instead.”

My beak was agape. “That sounds like an incredible opportunity but I really think you must have the wrong bird. I’m probably the worst employee in this place – I can’t even peck a decent hole in a tree.”

“My dear girl,” the stranger replied, “Don’t you know? Your beak has a large number of iron particles that remain aligned to the north, just like a compass. You’re designed to detect the earth’s magnetic field and you have an amazing sense of direction. You’re not a below-average employee – you’ve just been wasting away in a role that isn’t suited to your talents. You are quite literally a pigeon amongst woodpeckers. Of course you’re not good at your job – you’re not meant to be doing it!”

A warmth spread through my body as my intuition told me that he was speaking the truth and this new role was exactly what I was meant to be doing. This felt right. And what a feeling to have after a life that had felt wrong! It was time to embrace the unknown and start to shine because I was no longer a square peg in a round hole. I was capable of anything I set my mind on.

And so our bold, courageous Cher went off to war and played a brave role in carrying many important messages to help save lives. But… perhaps if she hadn’t made the choice to be good and help others (even though they had wronged her) then she would still be unhappy in a job that she was not designed for. It just goes to show that being a kind person is always the right choice. If you do good things then the universe brings goodness back to you.**

*This fabulous quotation is widely attributed to Albert Einstein. However, many believe that it is falsely accredited. I love its sentiment no matter who wrote it.

**This story, although entirely fictional, is inspired by the homing pigeon Cher Ami who was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for heroic service in delivering 12 important messages, despite being badly injured, during World War 1.