I decided to be an eagle when I was thirteen years old.
I grew up in a home surrounded by books. We read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. I loved stories about people that could transform themselves into animals, or inhabit the minds of animals. I also loved cats. I spent most of my lunch breaks in the first year of high school in the library, taking advantage of an amazing piece of new technology called a photo copier. I used my pocket money to make grainy black and white images of every kind of cat.
I got a part time job working at a coffee shop in Terrigal. A lot of the customers were rich people on holidays. They were very rude. They wanted the cinnamon sugar all the way to the edges of the toast. They wanted the chocolate powder on top of the coffee but not on the saucer. My boss would say “Rise above it.”
I read two books, one after the other. The first was about totems and native americans and how they gained wisdom from their totem animal. The second was about an eagle, written from the eagle’s point of view. Until then, I’d always thought that if I could be any animal I would be a leopard or a tiger. I decided, secretly, that my totem was an eagle.
If I was bullied at school I would rise above it. I was very fair skinned with dark hair and glasses, living in a part of the world where everyone lived on the beach and had suntans and blonde hair. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was also nerdy. I wasn’t badly bullied but I was bullied. Instead of responding like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car I would imagine myself flying, high above the school to an eerie where I could look back and realise how tiny and insignificant the humans were. I wore strange clothes with my school uniform (friends remember the splendid multicoloured crocheted poncho). My glasses meant that I needed to turn my head to see properly, like an eagle.
I dreamt of flying. I would wake up with stiff shoulders. I would lay on my stomach and imagine huge wings on my back.
As I grew older I became better and better at seeing the big picture. It became part of what made me a valuable employee. As a police officer I was the one that found missed details at crime scenes, asked left-of-centre questions in interviews and found strategic ways to build a brief of evidence. When I moved into management I was the kind of leader that valued everyone’s contribution, I understood systems and how they interacted. I understood leverage and how a small change in one area could result in big changes in another. I knew the difference between real change and the statistical blip that so often gets used to declare operational success. People said I often had ‘a helicopter perspective’. Really it was the eagle.
The analogy I see used most often to describe the way people feel when they’re given a cancer diagnosis is the rabbit one. We jump about. We freeze. Our inability to act in the face of danger places us in the path of an oncoming vehicle. We stare back at death. If we don’t mobilise we die.
I did this. It lasted a couple of days. Then I remembered the eagle.
Lift up. Rise above it. Get some perspective. See things for what they really are.
Sometimes this includes recognising how tiny and insignificant I am. A lot of people don’t understand this way of thinking. In a world where we’re all encouraged to see ourselves as the masters of the universe it seems to be counter-productive. I find it helpful to remember that my life, all our lives, are tiny drops in the ocean of human history. I also find it helps me to remember that just a few streets away, or just next door, there’s another person dealing with another crisis whose also feeling like their world is collapsing. When I take a wider view, there are thousands in this town, millions in this country, hundreds of millions of people all over the world, dealing with their own problems (and many of them are, surprisingly, much worse than a cancer diagnosis).
Sometimes, having and eagle’s perspective includes recognising how powerful I am. I can soar. I can pull up from the everyday and look back at it. I can give it context and broader meaning. I can rise above it.
The ability to worry, and to worry about the impact of our worrying, and to worry about that, seems to be a particularly human trait. I’m sure all animals get anxious when they’re under threat, but they respond. Fight or flight, not sitting about ruminating and becoming less and less able to deal with the situation. We often dig our own holes and then sit in the bottom of them, pulling dirt back into the hole and complaining about the mud.
I’ve done this too.
My father died of bladder cancer in his late 50’s. He had been a local politician, highly regarded by many for his dedication to helping people. Years later they named a bridge after him. On the day the bridge opened a huge eagle flew all the way down Brisbane Water and circled above the bridge. My mother said that the eagle was my father.
I’ve never told her about my totem.
I know that life is going to keep throwing up circumstances that feel like the headlights of an oncoming truck. Because that’s life. I also know I have a choice. I can be a rabbit or an eagle. I just have to remember that I have the choice. If I can remember to think of eagles, and to imagine I am one, I can fly.