Have you ever watched a chick break out of its shell?
My first experience with hatching was at the poultry barn at the Indiana State Fair. The building is the temporary home for hundreds of chickens, ducks, geese and pigeons each summer. And they make quite a ruckus. There’s a constant din of crowing and honking and cooing and whatever other adjectives you care to apply. Colorful feathers drift through the air.
As you walk through the front door, there’s a protected case for baby birds that have just hatched. And there’s an incubator full of eggs that are slowly being pecked and pushed apart by the little ones inside.
If you have some time, you can stand and watch a miracle unfold, peck by peck.
It takes hours for the chick to work its way out of the shell, sometimes an entire day. A 4-H volunteer sits by the incubator and records each chick’s progress during the exhausting escape from the shell into the greater world.
The chick has spent its entire life in the darkness of its protective shell. The nourishment of the yolk is all used up. The chick no longer fits comfortably inside the oval confine. It has no clue what lies outside the shell, but it knows instinctively that it has to break out or it will slowly die.
Is that a good analogy for what we experience in our lives? Do we often find ourselves breaking out of shells?
Take religion, for example.
Many of us are born into some sort of religion. Maybe our particular religion is big enough that it gives us encouragement and space to grow. Hooray! Or maybe our particular religion turns out to be very confining — limited to only those who see things a certain way — and it becomes like a hardened shell, something that leaves us living in a small, dark space. Eventually we realize that God isn’t confined to our shell, but lives outside of it. And we start to peck away.
Religion isn’t the only such area. We all have hatching moments at various times in our lives, in various parts of our lives. You can probably think of many such instances in your own.
And it’s not just things that come from outside of us. We build many individual shells. Ideas and beliefs easily harden into a shell of certainty and leave us in a small, dark space. We all have prejudices and fears that act like shells, keeping us apart from others.
One thing about shells: When we seek security inside them, we begin to die a little bit in some ways. Our spirits wither, our hearts harden, our lives are lived in self-imposed darkness.
And we feel an instinctive need to break out.
Not that it’s easy. Shells are very thin and delicate if you’re applying pressure from the outside, but very strong and unyielding if you’re on the inside trying to break out. They’re tough things to crack.
And the process can be scary. We don’t know what’s outside the egg — something we can’t possibly comprehend or predict. We’re tempted to stop pecking and piece our shell back together and stay there. Then we realize that’s not an option and go on.
When a chick finally spills out of its shell, it’s haggard and exhausted. It rests for a while, trying to recover and take it all in. Soon, it gets up and starts learning to walk. It joins the other birds. Some day, it will fly.
One time, I asked the 4-H egg monitor whether she was tempted to help the chick by cracking the shell and letting it out. She said that the struggle is an important part of the breaking-out process. It makes the chick strong enough to deal with what comes next.
Without the struggle, the chick wouldn’t survive outside the shell. The struggle makes the chick strong, keeps it alive and gets it ready to fly one day. The struggle brings the chick into a fuller experience of life.
Some refer to this as the mysterious process of life.
Others might call it grace.