When we were kids, my brother and I had the mother of all pillow fights. It ended with a shriek of glee when David swatted me squarely on the top of my head. His pillow burst, liberating thousands of feathers into the air. For weeks afterward gypsy bits of white fluff roamed through our house, rising from dresser drawers, drifting out of folded clothes, and even, to my surprise, peeking out from the corner of a small red carton of cloves in the kitchen pantry.
But each time I tried to trap one of these feathers with my hand it fluffed away. At first I was amused, but soon I became frustrated. Those days, I lived by one rule, “go for it,” which simply didn’t work in this case. My pure aggressiveness was not the best option.
You have to wait for the fish to bite and I quickly learned that to catch a feather I had to be patient, reach out, and simply wait for it to land, or not, on my outstretched palm
The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world. Non-being penetrates that in which there is no space. Through this I know the advantage of taking no action.
—Lao-Tzu, The Way of Lao-Tzu
Recently my business partner, Harvey, cornered me in my office. “Alan, I have a problem. My son, your godson, Byron, and I had an argument about the rules in our house, and he won’t talk to me.”
Harvey’s quarrel was about Byron and his girlfriend sleeping in Byron’s bedroom overnight with Harvey’s 7-year-old stepdaughter in the house. Byron is 23 years old and his father’s pride and joy. As far as I knew their relationship had never been tarnished by any significant conflict.
“Alan, I don’t want to lose my son. But I won’t change the rules in my own house. What can I do?”
I recalled the day many years before when my own teenage son Steve had decided to live with his mother rather than accept one of my household rules. Eventually I had apologized to Steve, not so much for the rule but for my harsh way of imposing it, and we reconciled. In my mind I saw a feather gradually floating into my hand.
“Don’t chase him,” I said to Harvey.
“Don’t chase him?”
“Just extend your hand to him and wait for him to respond.”
“I have been waiting. For a week. And it hurts.”
“Waiting can be the hardest thing in the world, especially for people like you and me who are used to going after what we want. Children have to stake out their own territory.”
Harvey shook his head, looking sad. “I don’t like it but you may be right.”
For several weeks Harvey left welcoming messages on Byron’s telephone answering machine and waited. Byron finally returned his calls and, after more than a month, father and son agreed to share dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Harvey told Byron how sad he was that Byron couldn’t abide by the house rule, which Harvey would not change. While they didn’t come to a full resolve that evening, they opened up a dialogue that continued intermittently over the next few months.
Then last Friday, Harvey raced into my office, beaming, “The feather has landed!” Harvey paused for dramatic effect.
“Tonight he’s coming to the house for dinner for the first time since Christmas!”
I hadn’t seen Harvey grin so broadly since he had announced his engagement to his wife several years before (but that’s a feather off a different bird).
To catch a feather you have to wait. You can’t speed up the natural process of floating and the very attempt will push away the object of your desire.
You can only be available, as you might be to a newborn infant who cannot talk. You can open your heart and turn your palm upward toward the sky. You can wait and watch with yearning and generosity.
When the feather alights you can give thanks for a precious gift. And if you’re lucky, you might also realize that, from time to time, you are the feather yourself.