The universe is as improbable as a hummingbird.

Hummingbirds live at the limits of what is possible. I am reminded of a quote by David Attenborough, a documentary on hummingbirds and, for reasons I don’t yet understand, Rollo May’s The Meaning of Anxiety, which I first read about three years ago.

It’s late on the Sunday morning after my birthday. I’m doing yoga beneath a canopy of trees, and for the first time in weeks, the humidity isn’t stifling. I am using my cork yoga mat for the first time (which I love), while “Lucky Man” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer plays on the speaker. The universe is as improbable as a hummingbird. David Attenborough didn’t say that. But when the thought arrives in my mind, I know instantly it’s true. And I begin to understand why the hummingbird, as a symbol, makes me think of May—and of anxiety. For the next hour and half, I contemplate these ideas as I move through my practice. I make them one idea. 

The universe is as improbable as a hummingbird. So am I. And so are you. We don’t like to think this way. Indeed, we go to tremendous lengths to insulate ourselves from this reality. To acknowledge that we are, at each and every moment, in as much peril as the wild creatures— that our condition is just as precarious—is a terrible source of anxiety. That we exist as if moving—constantly moving—somewhere between life and death. And we are always closer to both of these extremes than we imagine.

That’s it. That’s the real connection to May. It’s my opinion that life is something we choose. As in the poem by André Breton:

Choose life choose that rose window on my tomb
The life of being here nothing but being here
Where one voice says Are you there where another answers Are you there
I'm hardly here at all alas
And even when we might be making fun of what we kill
                                               Choose life

To exist is not the same. To live is to move. To use. To continue to create, to ask without the promise of an answer. But always be asking. And never stop. Never slipping into a state of inertia. Never stagnating. To be sure, I have long believed that one of the greatest causes of anxiety in my life is the failure to act. Whenever I go through periods of anxiety, one of the first questions I ask myself is: what am I not doing? 

To the Bottom, paper collage, 2021

And I’ve found this is often a terribly uncomfortable question to answer. Because it means there’s an area of my life that needs tending to. That needs action, momentum.

Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self, as well as creating in all the innumerable daily activities (and these are two phases of the same process) — one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever. Now creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living. If one does not do this, one is refusing to grow, refusing to avail himself of his possibilities; one is shirking his responsibility to himself…To put the matter figuratively, in every experience of creativity something in the past is killed that something new in the present may be born.

Rollo May

He goes on to suggest that clinging to old forms and refusing to grow is often a matter of values. Of the importance we assign to various behaviors and ways of being, such that we often end up refusing to do what we know is good for us. This is a form of inertia.

But what’s more interesting to me is this. By May’s definition, it is possible–if not, in some sense, likely–to be a highly functioning, productive, successful, goal-oriented person who suffers from anxiety. That is, if you’re not “creating in all the innumerable daily activities,” which is tantamount to creating oneself. Indeed, you can be great at your job, do what’s required to maintain reasonably good health, keep yourself in shape, etc., but what about the rest of you?

If you haven’t mastered the fundamentals of daily life, then you haven’t mastered yourself. I don’t generally deign to talk in terms of self-mastery—being a proud and self-proclaimed master of none—but I think that language drives the point home, doesn’t it?

If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty.

Rainer Maria Rilke

The universe is as improbable as a hummingbird. And so are we. Always closer to life and death than we imagine. Always moving toward wholeness. Always trying to find our equilibrium, our footing. But that’s the dance, isn’t it? To allow ourselves to continually die and be reborn, in accordance with the rest of nature. That’s the hard part. That’s the choice.

the universe is as improbable as a hummingbird
and though i see you walking, i know 
	the door isn’t really there
as if to say, i vowed to become a jungle
	once.
in the same way a snail triumphs over the moon
a girl in a yellow dress
	a butterfly on a wheel

7 thoughts on “The universe is as improbable as a hummingbird.

    1. Thank you, Bob. When the title came to mind, I knew intuitively I needed to connect it to May, anxiety, etc., but one of my first thoughts was also, “this needs to be a poem.” I was uncertain if presenting it as both would be successful, so I very much appreciate your feedback. And I’m happy you enjoyed it. “Choose Life” is one of my favorite Breton poems.

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  1. This post is full of wonderful thoughts and ideas. Such an astute observation of how anxiety is often caused by the failure to act. I absolutely agree with this and it is only when we live instead of exist, “create without promise of an answer” that we can achieve the sort of beauty found within peace…which we all long for…the “dance” as you say between life and death is as fragile and as “improbable as a hummingbird” but should not cause fear or anxiety to rise up in us. But cause us to dance with life and death… and create and become…as you quoted Ranier Maria Rilke (whose work I’m currently reading now :), “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty.” Life…it’s risky, it’s improbable…but if you dance within that risk and improbability, the art, the creativity that will unfold will not only bring beauty to this harsh world with delicate grace but will give us the peace that comes when we the riches of this life coalesce with our own unique being and become…something extraordinary…well done, my friend.

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    1. Thank you so much! It’s true–just as you said so eloquently in your last poem–it is necessary to accept the risks of living. That’s the only way we can experience the fullness of life and the sense of possibility within ourselves. I always enjoy reading reading your commentary. Beautifully written, and you leave me with much to think about. Thank you again, friend. Take care!

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  2. Thank you so much for this! So many thought-provoking ideas, layers, an quotes, returning to the theme of the improbability of a hummingbird (and us). Fantastic! Happy belated birthday! Yoga outside sounds heavenly. 🧘🏼‍♀️

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