Why Can’t We Be Like That Wise Old Bird?

I was recently reminded of an old English proverb my grandmother would recite when her grandchildren got too unruly:

A wise old owl sat on an oak.

The more he saw, the less he spoke.

The less he spoke, the more he heard.

Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?

English proverb

The reminder made me smile, but then reflect back on the source of the wisdom. My grandmother was a sage women. She lived a life of affluence and of suffering. In many ways, hers was an inversion of the rags-to-riches archetype.

My grandmother was the quiet type, always observing what was going on around her. Much like that proverbial owl. Much like myself.

The stories were few and far between, but I hung on her every word.

She had been the youngest passenger to fly on the Graf Zeppelin airship en route to boarding school in Brussels. She spent her summers on the Massachusets coast with the Kennedy family and had dated the creator of Dove soap (and been lost at sea on a sailboat within him during a storm). She and her two sisters were Julliard-trained pianists and had a stint in New York City where they performed the piano every night as a trio. She followed her husband all over the country, without a clue what he did for a living. When a relative stole the family inheritance, my grandmother went to school to become a teacher to support herself through retirement. Then, up until her early-80s, she would drive solo from Phoenix to Niagara Falls every summer to visit her brother.

Her life was filled with stories–tales of adventure, heartbreak, love, fear, and everything in between. She lived less than a mile away for most of my life, yet everything I know about her fits into a single paragraph. How many incredible stories did I miss out on because my grandmother didn’t think they were worth sharing?

Vicki recently shared a lovely post on the importance of capturing and telling family stories as a means of creating a sense of continuity and resilience. Like my grandmother, I am the quite type. I never had a problem with that infamous childhood reminder that having two ears and one mouth means that we should listen twice as much as we talk.

However, any good thing, taken to the extreme, can be detrimental. If we listen intently without sharing our own stories and wisdom, we’ll take those hard-won lessons to our grave, robbing future generations of that sense of continuity and resilience I feel when I hear my own family stories.

Why can’t we be like that wise old bird?

Throughout my life, I’ve endeavored to be be an empathetic listener. It’s simple, it’s free, and it makes others feel seen. It makes us feel good! So few people really listen, and I noted early in life that it’s one of the most greatly appreciated gifts.

Understanding is a virtue, but I’m realizing now that listening is just one piece of the puzzle. After we’ve listened, true understanding entails asking questions and gently drawing out that which is buried. Pairing empathy and critical thinking, we can choose our words careful. We can cultivate fertile soils in which family stories can be sowed and tended to. We can invite those stories to take root.

As a child, I though that the wise old owl was a grumpy old curmudgeon who was telling me and all the other children to shut up and go away.

However, rereading it today, I think the more appropriate interpretation may be to “listen to understand” and “speak only when you have something of value to contribute”.

I think both are lessons we could all stand to be reminded of. Listening extends beyond merely tipping our ear in a particular direction. It’s taking an active interest in others’ stories and, when the time is right, exercising a willingness to share our own. It is allowing others the opportunity to practice their own listening skills, collecting stories, and then passing on those priceless family heirlooms for generations to come.

You can find more from me on my personal blog: https://existentialergonomics.com/

34 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Be Like That Wise Old Bird?

  1. This is an inventive and essential essay. “I’m realizing now that listening is just one piece of the puzzle. After we’ve listened, true understanding entails asking questions and gently drawing out that which is buried.”

    Yes, this is essential. The silence of some people doesn’t mean they will not speak, but perhaps they have been waiting for a safe and sympathetic listener.

    Even owls are waiting for the right moment to speak. They generally do so after dark. Indeed, in that way, they are much like children who have waited until being put to bed when the accumulated emotion of the day is expressed to a dear parent.

    Thank you, Esoterica.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you, Dr. Stein. It’s wonderful to have the perspective of a clinical psychologist on the topic, and I think you’re spot-on with the observation that others may simply be waiting for a safe and sympathetic listener. If we learn to pay attention, I bet we could recognize those times when people are seeking a safe space in which to share their story.


  2. Your grandmother? What a life! I suspect you could tell stories…endlessly…about her life but I also appreciate the nuances you’ve described, the need to be delicate, thoughtful, compassionate as you ask questions and draw out details from loved ones. As you pointed out, wise old owls know all about that! 😎💗😎

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Most of what I know is from old newspaper clippings and home videos from the 1930s onward, though I did hear the about “Dove soap date” story firsthand, and I was *astonished* that my grandmother was born before soap was invented. 😂😂😂 She really did live an incredible life, though, and I’m grateful for the little snippets of stories that do exist. 💗

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like your reference to a wise old owl. Seems like we all could head in that direction if we only allowed ourselves to do so. Listen more, tell better stories, enjoy life. Sure, I’m onboard.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Wonderful, simplistically profound post Esoterica. Thank you.

    Makes me realize why God gave us two ears and one mouth, and wish this ole garrulous grandpa had more often chosen to be a wise ole owl than a blabbering blue jay 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Fred! There is a time and a place for the blabbering blue jay, too. My grandfather on the other side of the family was just that… a playful jokester, always spreading laughter and joy. We need that, too! 😊


  5. I am all about family history and genealogy. I have a newspaper account, so I would be happy to search out some articles for your grandmother if you are so inclined.

    I pride myself in being a good listener. I feel like, in general, people want to be heard more than they want to listen, though. It says something about our society. I hope you will tell your stories. Often. And if no one is listening, write them down. Someday someone will be looking for them.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Isn’t family history and genealogy fascinating? If you would be willing to conduct a search, that would be incredible. If you don’t mind, I’ll message you with her name, DOB, and place of birth. Thank you!!😊

      Listening is so important, and increasingly so, as people’s attention spans keep shrinking and people seem lost in the chaos. Thank you for the encouragement, Maggie. I think that sharing our stories, in many ways, is just as valuable for the person sharing… I know that sharing helps me process things, and hopefully the trivial tales will take on a new meaning someday, perhaps after I’m gone.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t mind at all. You can use my contact form to send me the details.

        Everyone has a story to tell. I wish you all the best in document8 g your journey.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Knowing who we are, how we belong, and how that shaped us as individuals is so important. I don’t know why we feel it is wrong to ask others to share. A simple, No I prefer not to, is fine, but what if no one ever tries to open the door to the past by simply asking. Your amazing grandma may never have had a need to share because she didn’t know how important her stories could be and no one took the chance to ask. I think there is a lot of fear behind the not asking/not telling Erin along with the reciprocity of being an active and inquisitive listener 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re absolutely right, Deb–asking others to share is the chance to open a door, or decline to do so. I suspect our hesitations to share and ask are rooted in fear. It’s a shame because, the right person (or crowd) with be encouraging and empathetic, and even the most trivial stories are laced with life lessons and little sparks that speak to the storyteller’s personality.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow, what a delightful and interesting post. You ask such great questions about listening, empathy, connection, Erin! It strikes me that listening without sharing sometimes short circuits vulnerability. I agree that listening is such a gift, and one that is rare these days. But so is sharing heartfelt and relatable stories. I love Maggie’s offer to research stories about your grandmother. How interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a great point, Wynne, about listening without sharing short circuiting vulnerability. Wow! 🤯 It brings to mind the Gottmans and emotional bids. Withholding a story or opinion could be interpreted as a rejection of such a bid, ultimately causing harm to a relationship. You’ve given me so much to think about!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Your family history is so fascinating. I recall you shared your grandfather’s work in the aviation industry a while ago and now your grandmother.

    It’s great that you are sharing these stories with others in tidbits so that your family too can endure.

    And owls are such beautiful creatures. I agree now that as we get older, we view them in a different light – as do we the balance between silence and speech.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Ab. Learning about our family histories can be an experience, in and of itself, and there’s so many lessons to be gleaned from the past. I like to think of family history as a tapestry, where we need to appreciate what’s already there to add the right colors and textures to our contribution. That’s no to say someone can’t break from a bad pattern and start over. But, we all have stories to tell… stories that I bet future generations would appreciate.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow, fascinating stuff Erin …. Your grandmother, listening vs contributing, all of it. I think if we were to modernize the wise old owls message, it would be to do as you described, focus on listening and then when the time is right, sharing with a loud forceful voice. I’ve always been fascinated by listening and how little we of it we really do. In meetings we’re always scared of being overlooked, but I’ve noticed though over time that sometimes the people with the most power/authority are not the loudest talkers, they’re the ones who listen and time their comments at the precise right moment! The could be whispering but others want to hear them. Great post Erin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Brian! Ooh, I like that your modernization of the message includes sharing with a loud forceful voice… which implies a confidence. I’ve always been a “good listener” myself, so I’m also intrigued by others’ habits and have noted the same–when those who speak infrequently speak up, others listen because it must be important.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I wonder why I wasn’t wise enough to ask my mother more about her life while she was still here. I wonder why my granddaughters don’t ask me more about my life while I’m still here. So many memories, so many wonderful stories, so much family history gets buried with us. Maybe we should all be writing our memoirs. Oh but wait—think of the wealth of material that bloggers leave as gifts for later for those who may be interested. There’s that, at least!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely write about all the stories captured on blogs! I’m sorry you missed out on many of your mother’s stories, but it’s not too late to share some of your stories with your granddaughters . I bet they would love hearing more about your life, but simply never through to ask.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. On the basis of your family history alone, I think your pen name of Esoterica is pretty perfect! I also appreciate your views on listening and sharing stories. You never know how your story may help someone else.

    Liked by 1 person

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