Feathers of a bird

I was raised by a man who thought words were quite nearly the perfect plaything. Always at hand, fluid, flexible, and often very funny. They could be ready made weapons too - but still. He liked to play, my dad did. And he really liked to play with words. (He isn't dead or anything. I'm just remembering what it was like back then.)

He once told my daughter, who'd just gotten old enough to understand the joke, that "feathers of a bird flock in a heap." If I remember this incident correctly, she figured it out over a few hours, and when she started laughing, we were already home.

I believe this proverb - about birds of a feather. They flock together, all right. There are lots of ways to say it, and everyone knows it's true. "He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed," and "Make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man thou shalt not go: lest thou learn his ways, and get a snare to thy soul." That's Solomon the Wise. "Have no friends not equal to yourself" is Confucius, and "Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation for 'tis better to be alone than in bad company." That's George Washington.

It makes sense, of course. We become like the things around us. The concept of "peer pressure" never has to be explained to anyone because we have all felt it.

But now I'm old, and I'm starting to see a few more things in this setup. (And I know I'm old because my aunt told me so this past Christmas - she told me I didn't look like me any more. I looked old. She's allowed to say things like this because she's 83.)

There's more to this truth of life about our being like the company we keep. The truth is that no matter where we are or who we're with, we always choose what we want to look at.

And we find companions who seem not only to be reflections of us in some way when we find them, but also who are people who will tell us who we are. We choose company that tells us to ourselves. We surround ourselves with the environment we believe suits us, and when we get a choice, we want people around who give us the impression of ourselves we believe is the accurate one - or the impression of ourselves we want to develop into the accurate one.

If you want to learn to play tennis, find someone who's won a few matches. If you want to get married and stay that way 'til death does you part, find a couple that's been married a long time, and figure out a few things. Listen to those people. Get directions from someone who's been where you want to go. This is another reason birds of a feather find each other -- migration takes place across the generations as well as across the miles. Somewhere in that flock is a novice.

It's my own no-longer-children offspring who've taught me a bit of a broader perspective on this lately. I've been noticing something. They've moved from accepting the reflections they've seen (intended or otherwise) coming to them in their parents, and now they choose people to be with who "not liars" and a friend who is "not a tool." Someone who tells me "the truth" about me is someone I think I can trust.

But ... it generally escapes us - especially when we're young - that we've mostly chosen the people who tell us what we already believe. It's harder work to find (and then listen to) someone who gives feedback we can't recognize.

I am beginning to think that that is what it means to be old. Or ... older.
If we age well, we see more and more of how things work, and our ears and eyes open to the things we hadn't expected. We can hear the Miss Bingleys of the world, even if we know them to be odious people. We can begin to see the difference between a liar and a lie, even if we realize that someone who tells lies morphs himself into A Liar. And even liars sometimes tell the truth -- so it's a good idea to listen. We can feel less anxiety about the winter because we've finally figured out that spring always comes again. And we can hear it with a high degree of sanguine acceptance when our wrinkly old aunts tell us we're old - we can even take it as a compliment.

The young, still forming a perspective, are mostly not listening to the things unexpected. You have to learn the rules before the exceptions are very useful. But for me? I'm old. My hearing's getting a lot better.

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