Robin RTSA

First robin! Two words that signal the arrival of spring in Wisconsin.

For birds, it’s family time: mating, building nests, laying eggs and raising the young. And like many parents, robins can be fiercely territorial.

The robins that nest near our house go through what seems like a bizarre ritual, one rooted in misperception: Perched on a tree branch just a few feet from the house, Robin sees his image in the window. He thinks it’s a competitor, so he goes into attack mode — repeatedly flying into his reflection in the window.

Often, Robin does this with enough gusto to injure himself. Specks of blood and other bodily fluids on the window are evidence of this battle between bird and imagined enemy, which is actually a battle between bird and glass.

“Bird brain!” — I think as I watch this — “Stop! It’s a misperception! There’s no enemy there, and all you’re doing is hurting yourself!”

But Robin can’t read my thoughts.

Poor bird — such a bitty brain, especially compared to the human brain.

It’s OK to admit a sense of superiority: We humans have a large and complex brain. That’s just a plain fact. And we have a neocortex. Birds don’t.

True threats vs imagined ones

The neocortex is involved in higher functions — things we humans do automatically: thinking, planning, problem solving. Thanks to the neocortex, humans have invented the wheel, built pyramids, landed on the moon, etc.

And, importantly, we humans (unlike poor Robin) can distinguish between true threats and imagined threats

After contemplating all of this, I lose interest and — blessed with the superior brain of a human — go about my day.

Checking out the news, I note that the count is now up to 419. That’s the current number of people who have been charged with crimes as a result of the Jan. 6 insurrection at our Capitol. 

Each of them is presumed innocent. They find themselves in this pickle, however, because they bought into a misperception: that the 2020 election had been stolen. (Note: The internet’s algorithmic design, which gives me more of what I click on, feeds these “single narratives,” polarizing us further).

The Capitol is the people’s building, so in a sense these folks are charged with attacking themselves.

So much for our neocortex.

Then I read a publication put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks “hate groups” in America. The SPLC focuses on groups that vilify others because of differences: race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity. At last count, there were 838 such groups around the country — everything from Ku Klux Klan and neo-nazi to “general hate.” Wisconsin has a small lead over Minnesota when it comes to such groups, 13 to 11.

That’s one “border battle” I’d prefer Wisconsin not win.

To me, the insurrectionists and hate groups are another version of Robin attacking itself because of a misperception: That we are defined by our differences.

It’s the opposite of the common wisdom among the world’s major religions: Compassion. Feeling connection with other beings. Love.

We need each other.

If Robin had a neocortex; if Robin could observe our battles; if Robin could chirp in English, I picture him saying: 

Hey, you guys — the ones with those big brains. You’re fighting over misperceptions! And all you’re doing is hurting yourselves.”

Keith Rodli is a retired attorney/mediator and lives in rural River Falls with his wife, Katharine Grant.

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