I recently was listening to this podcast about why there are so many chicken bones on the streets of New York City. I don’t live in New York, and I don’t see many chicken bones on my street, but apparently this is a real issue, particularly for dog owners, who are constantly pulling chicken bones out of their dogs’ mouths. The podcast referenced multiple Reddit threads, TikToks, and loads of anecdotal evidence of dog owners complaining and chastising people for throwing their chicken bones on the street.
The thought crossed my mind around the time the hosts mentioned it: I’ve never seen anyone actually eat chicken off the bone on the street, nonetheless then just drop the bones on the ground. That seems like very abnormal behavior to have happened enough times to cause a systemic problem all over a major city. I found myself mentally calculating what percentage of fast-food chicken sold was even on the bone, when the hosts highlighted an interesting observation: most of the bones were found relatively near trashcans, and sociological studies suggest that littering is inversely correlated with proximity to a trash can.
In short, most people litter because they can’t find a trash can. So people just throwing chicken bones on the ground near a trash can not only sounds bizarre, but is, according to research, very unlikely.
So maybe the bones weren’t from people. There are more chicken bones on the street in New York than in other cities. And, because New York City famously doesn’t have alleys, New Yorkers set their trash, in just plastic bags, on the street for pick-up. Which means that New York also has more of something else than most other cities: rats.
Rats chew through trashbags, pull out discarded chicken bones, eat the little bits of chicken left on them, and then leave the bones behind. There is no cadre of haphazard litterers eating whole chickens on park benches in New York. There are rats, and a systemic sanitation problem caused by unusual urban planning.
The podcast made me think of all the online reviews I had seen where people swear that a restaurant intentionally made them wait longer for their food. Or people I had heard say they didn’t get a job, or a promotion, because someone in management didn’t like them. I think of all parenting research that continues to try to reassure parents that their babies are not manipulating them, or the ways many seek to blame poor people for their poverty.
Why do we need there to be an enemy? Why do we need to believe that because something is inconvenient for us, because something is hard, because we don’t like something, that another person caused it out of malicious intent?
I had a conversation with my therapist recently about how I occasionally felt overwhelmed in my role as a mother to twin toddlers, how I found myself feeling resentful of everyone around me for not carrying more weight, even though consciously I fully believed everyone was doing the best they could. I realized in my conversation with her that, because I felt overwhelmed, I assumed that someone must not be pulling their weight. She offered (correctly) that maybe I was overwhelmed, not because anyone did anything wrong, but because having twin toddlers is overwhelming.
Maybe it’s hard for us to accept that the world is just hard sometimes. Maybe anger is easier to sit with than disappointment.
I understand this is a lot of sermon-izing for a podcast about chicken bones. But the podcast host reflected about how seeing the chicken bones differently changed their day. Instead of looking down and being annoyed at lazy, gross people, they looked down and thought of the way nothing was really wasted, that they shared their meal, in a sense, with little furry friends. His reflection made me smile at the rats’ ingenuity and resourcefulness. True New Yorkers.
I wondered if the lesson of the chicken bones is that truth that the world is not out to get you. There are no hordes of lazy people, evil people, throwing chicken bones on the ground, looking to swindle you, or take what’s yours. There is sometimes more need than there are resources to fix it. Life is sometimes overwhelming even when we all are trying our best. There is sometimes hurt and disappointment and tragedy that isn’t anyone’s fault. Sometimes it’s rats eating the chicken bones.
So what do we do with that? As leaders, humans, and maybe most of all, Christians?
First, be willing to err on the side of grace. Is there a chance that some people are taking more than their share or not pulling their weight? Of course. Is there a chance that the restaurant really is making you specifically wait on purpose? Sure. But we never have perfect information of what someone’s capacity is or what their needs are, so maybe we can assume the best in everyone and just be ok with occasionally letting people get away with less than perfect behavior. More has been forgiven in us.
Second, we can stop assuming that any struggle is somehow outside of what is supposed to happen. My crux of misunderstanding in my parenthood was that me being overwhelmed meant that something must be wrong. Sometimes, parenthood, ministry, relationships, and life are just hard, and looking for someone to blame robs you of the greatest gift that struggle can offer, which is…
Third, we can find God in unexpected places: in a meditation on the resourcefulness of rats, and our shared communion together, in an opportunity to spend more time at a meal with a friend, in being able to invite God to grant you more peace and patience than you have ever needed before because your 1 year old son has decided that he must be allowed to use his own spoon.
Next time you are tempted to look for someone to blame, to construct an enemy to explain everything from minor inconveniences to major systemic issues, do yourself a favor, and use that same creative energy to construct an alternate solution. Try to imagine what rats and reasons you might have missed. Try assuming that everyone in the situation is a beloved Child of God trying their best (because they probably are). See how the world around you shifts.