A murmuration of starlings
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Murmurs of love

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, my husband and I went to the Labia Theatre in Cape Town to watch Occupy Love, a documentary by director Velcrow Ripper. In this film, interviews with activists, philosophers, elders and everyday lovers punctuate footage of peaceful protests from around the world: the first murmurs of the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square; a walk to protest the destruction caused by mining the Alberta tar sands; and the week-by-week development of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York.

Politics, environment, economics … three fundamental aspects of our collective lives as human beings. Three aspects that – like the horsemen of the Apocalypse – are galloping full-tilt towards the edge of the ultimate precipice, dragging humanity and nature along with them. What the film makes clear is that increasing numbers of people around the world are realising that the models we have developed to explain and manage our relationships with people and nature just aren’t working. Not for people, not for nature. We need to find a new way.

According to the ‘Occupy’ placards, the dominant narrative of our time serves the interests of only one percent of humanity. The rest of us – the 99% – cannot thrive in a system based on individualism, competitiveness, domination, greed, and relentless, unreflective growth. We need a new story that more accurately explains ‘how the world works’ … a story that can inspire us at this time of unprecedented challenge. Ripper envisions this narrative as a love story.

After the movie I heard a few people comment that they were disappointed that it had not provided clearer advice about ‘things we can do to save the world’. That wasn’t my experience. I left with something that felt a lot more generative than a list of things to do … the question Ripper asked many of the people he interviewed:

“How could the crisis we’re facing become a love story?”

This is a question to conjure with. A question to discuss around dinner tables, coffee tables, fireplaces  and water coolers. A question to awaken our creativity, and set us on a new trajectory.

A perfect planetary storm is brewing. It has already grown too big to be diverted by rationally-devised solutions based on the assumptions that created the crisis in the first place. It is too complex to be addressed by techno-fixes and endless conferencing. This crisis is bringing us to the ends of our tethers – to that point of grace where we finally surrender to Love.

Love is the urge that created the Universe, the energy that enlivens all that is, the bond that connects us. Surrendering to Love allows us to rest from our strivings, and to awaken to wisdom and intuition – qualities we require in order to live responsively.

Living through this perfect storm can easily overwhelm us and cause us to want to give up. When issues coalesce and reach global proportions, we may feel that nothing we do as individuals will have an impact. Yet, during the movie a short sequence focusing on a phenomenon called a ‘murmuration of starlings’ encouraged me not to despair.

During the winter months in certain parts of Europe, flocks of birds called European starlings come together just before roosting time, and merge into mega-flocks of sometimes tens of thousands of birds. For about twenty minutes they participate in an astonishing display of coordinated flight – soaring, swooping and undulating – almost as if for that brief period they formed a single organism.

Fascinated to discover the secrets of this exquisite dance, scientists have looked closely at footage of murmurations and discovered that each individual bird manages to respond to the twists and turns of the whole flock (and indeed to influence the movement of the whole) by monitoring and responding to just the seven birds closest to itself. When each individual bird keeps in its sight its seven nearest neighbours and responds to them, the entire flock moves as one. One article described murmuration as an example of a system, well known to physicists, in which collective phenomena emerge from short-range interactions.

And this is what gives me hope. In this hugely challenging time, with so many enormous issues and causes vying for our attention, and with our egos pushing us to make a significant difference in the world, we may feel drawn to work at a scale that we cannot sustain. The humble starling suggests another way.

We could start by attending with love and with care to those who are closest to us – to our families, friends, colleagues and neighbours (whether people, creatures or places). We could trust that, even if that quality of direct attention and care stretched no further than to seven others, if each of those seven, in turn, inspired, encouraged and supported seven others, it would not take long for the murmurs of love to ripple through our communities.

It would not take long to transform the global crisis into the greatest love story of our Age.


For more on the movie Occupy Love, see

To watch footage of a murmuration of starlings, see

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