Nietzsche said famously that, “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” What he meant is something like this. We see the immense suffering, illness, predation, and death around us all the time—in nature, everything eating everything—children suffering and dying, evil men thriving, good people dying in accidents or to crime or cancer.
How can we justify such a world?
Religions offer their best explanations, none of them all that convincing: We suffer now we’ll but go to heaven later. We suffer now but we’ll be reborn in a better life next time. We suffer now, but it’s our karma. We suffer now as a test of our faith.
Unconvinced by all of these, Nietzsche says that in the face of all the suffering we see everyday, one thing we can say about the world is that it is beautiful. It is eternally beautiful.
Whether this makes up for the suffering is another question. But perhaps beauty is a window, an intuitive window into something larger, wiser than we can imagine.
The day before yesterday, Kellen was sitting by one of our windows and said,
“Daddy. I found a honey bee that’s dying. It’s lost one of its wings and two of its legs.”
“There’s probably not much we can do for it,” I said, looking up from my book. “Should we take it outside?”
“I don’t want something to get it. Let’s bring in some food for it. Clover flowers!”
The boys went out and got a clutch of clover and added a stick of incense to the mix and lay him in it. Kellen said he was crawling toward it.
“He likes it!”
But an hour later, Kellen said it was dead. Both boys were sad. They wanted a little burial. We took it out and placed it under a bush in a burial nest made of clover.
“Do you guys want to say a few words?”
Kellen said, “We’re sorry you had to die, honey bee.”
“We will remember you,” Aidan said.
“May you go on to another life, a wonderful life,” I said.
I reminded them that in India, people believe in reincarnation. I said, “Maybe because the bee experienced human love before it died, it will take a new life as a kitty or a fish or another kind of pet that humans take care of.”
We felt a little better.
Yesterday, Jennifer and I were reading on our bed just inside from our balcony terrace. Aidan had gone out and he came back in and stood with a shocked look on his face.
“Mommy, Daddy, the bird nest fell down.”
We went out to see.
A beautiful little bird called a brown-headed sparrow had built a tan-colored, swallow-like nest attached to the underside of the eaves of the terrace of the house. It was just to the left of and above the door and made of mud, just like a swallow’s nest. Every morning for the last week, when I opened my eyes from meditation I’ve been watching the parent birds fly to a little iron arbor sculpture on the terrace. Each parent would hold a tiny grub-like insect in its mouth. It would sit on the metal perch for a long time, looking this way and that, this way and that. Then, all of a sudden it would fly to the nest, and disappear inside. The cottage caretaker told me that it had been there for three or four years. That meant the same parents had used it again and again.
The boys were entranced by the babies. As I noted in another post, our boys love baby animals. We could hear them crying. Aidan tried to stand on a chair, then a table, to see the little checks but we never got to.
“O, My God, what can we do?” Jennifer asked.
The nest, evidently, had broken loose from the eave and fallen the nine feet to the concrete floor. Crumbled, broken chunks of mud lay there with feathers and straw and the four chicks. The chicks were about two-to-three inches in size, without feathers, eyes shut, folded as in fetal position. They must have been a week or two old. Two were dead, their skin broken, killed by the fall. Two were crying, trying to hobble around, unable to stand up.
“I don’t know! Do you think a cat knocked the nest down?”
“There’s nothing a cat could have climbed to get to it.”
“We have to help them!” Aidan cried.
“Sweetie,” I said, “I don’t think we can do anything.”
“We can put them back in the nest. Maybe the mommy and daddy will come back.”
“The nest is in pieces.”
“People say once you touch a baby bird,” Jennifer added, “the mother will abandon it.”
“Can’t we put them in a box and feed them cereal.”
“No, the parents have been bringing them little grubs, soft things with no shell or legs. I don’t know what they were. They can’t eat cereal.”
“What about milk?”
“I’m sorry, sweetie.”
We gathered up the straw and feathers and remade the nest and lay it on the wide concrete bench in front of the windows below where the nest had been in hopes that the parents would come back and feed them. I got of piece of cloth to pick them up with. They were completely helpless. Unable to walk or fly or really move. I situated them in the nest and put the dead ones in there, too. Maybe they weren’t dead, yet. Maybe they’d all feel safer together.
We went inside the bedroom and watched and waited. After a few minutes, sure enough, one of the parents appeared on the metal sculpture with a tiny grub in its mouth, looking this way and that!
The nest must have just fallen. The parent could hear the babies crying, but didn’t know where to find them. Eventually, it made its way to the concrete bench. It hopped around toward the babies but then after a couple of seconds flew away. We thought it had sensed our presence or seen us move inside the window. We tried to be quieter, stiller. It came back, but the same thing happened.
“Let’s leave them alone and go downstairs,” Jennifer said.
We went downstairs. We told they boys that the chances were that they were not going to make it.
Later, I went up to check on them. The two live chicks were crying with their mouths opened, as wide as their bodies. I hoped they were being fed.
Later that evening, I checked again.
The two that had seemed dead were clearly dead. The other two had fallen out of the nest, lying there, one on its back and one on its side, mouths opening and closing without sound. I doubted they were going to make it. I gingerly picked them up and put them back into the nest.
We decided to bury the dead ones and then add the other two to the grave if they also died. We dug a hole in the flower garden and put the two in it, wrapped in tissue. We said a few words and covered them and put a rock on top and the boys went and got blue hydrangea blossoms to put on the rock.
I told the boys not to look at the other two chicks, as it might upset them.
Jennifer and I talked about what to do. Should we leave the birds in the nest in hopes the parents may still feed them? Should we take them to the animal shelter? We visit an animal shelter every week where the boys play with the dogs. Should we put the baby birds out of their misery? I couldn’t imagine doing that.
So we opted for the first choice. But I felt helpless. Clearly they were suffering. Chances are they were going to die. But I wasn’t going to cut their throats or smash their heads. It would make the planned burial more difficult for the boys.
Killing. I’ve spent a lot of our time here in our cottage killing. We are a family of vegetarians. But our Aidan has a bad spider phobia. I don’t know where he got it. We’re reading The Lord of the Rings together right now. They boys have seen the first of the movies. We decided we needed to read the books before they see the other two. I can’t imagine how he’s going to deal with Shelob, either in the book or the film.
In our cottage we have big spiders. I mean really big. So big that when you first see one, you go, “Uh!” and your breath is sucked in. Like Dickinson says about the snake, your feeling is “zero at the bone.” The big spiders are as black as a night and four inches in diameter. I am not exaggerating. Four inches. Please spread your thumb and middle finger to four inches right now and see how that looks. They have big bulbous bodies, which I have found out, are full of a foul liquid. On one of our first afternoons in the cottage I thought Jennifer was going to pass out when she turned to me breathing loudly from one that was sitting there on our white bed spread. I killed it, of course.
I’ve learned they are harmless. Normally, I might consider just helping them out the door. Except for Aidan.
For four weeks we lived in fear that he might see one of the big ones. He was terrified about going to bed, having only seen some of the smaller ones. We rearranged the upstairs bedroom, so that the head of our bed met the head of their bed in the middle of the room, away from all walls. I hold his hand as he’s going to sleep.
Then, one night it happened. Every night, Jennifer goes upstairs to do a “spider check” while I get the boys’ teeth brushed and ready for bed. If she finds one, I go up and kill it. On this night, we had brushed our teeth downstairs and Aidan went over to the corner of the room to get his Kindle Fire. Suddenly, he let out a blood-coagulating scream and ran into the kitchen where I brushing my teeth at the sink. His eyes were as big as moons and he was hyperventilating.
“Help me, Daddy! Help me! Help me!!”
I knew what he’d seen.
“It’s okay! It’s okay!” I said. In that moment, I realized that this is the sentence I say to my boys more than any other—when they wake from nightmares, when we encounter a bull on the trail, when they have been fighting and squabbling.
“It’s okay. It’s okay.” He was crying. “They’re harmless,” I said. “They’re scary looking but they’re harmless.”
“I want to go home. I want to go home. I want to go home.”
Meanwhile, Jennifer was upstairs yelling.
I had inadvertently locked her in upstairs. She was hearing her child screaming down below and could not get to him.
As I’ve written before, you have to go outside to an outdoor stairs to get up to the second level. All the screen doors tend to swing open after you close them, so I’d developed a habit of latching them whenever I went through any of them to help keep the spiders and mosquitoes and flies out. But several times I’ve locked a person in or out. So, Jennifer was upstairs locked in the room and screaming for her son.
“Michael, let me out! Let out!”
Aidan was crying for me to help him. Kellen was crying along with Aidan.
But I have to kill the fucking spider!
“Aidan, stay here! I have to kill the spider before it gets away!”
I grabbed a fly swatter.
“Where is it? Aidan, where is it? Focus. You have to tell me!”
“Over there in the corner. Daddy, help me!”
“I will. I will.
“Michael, let me out!”
“Jennifer! I’ll be there in a minute.”
I saw the spider. It was the biggest and most bulbous yet, with a fat yellow-greenish body. It was in a corner where a piece of molding met the main wood of the base of the window seats. I knew it would be a bad shot. I whacked it as hard as I could. Two legs broke off, but it scurried away. I whacked again, but it was gone! Gone!
“Fuck!” I said, before my sons. I have to pretend that I got it.
“It’s gone! I got it.”
I took them upstairs. Jennifer was beside herself. I apologized profusely. Again and again. We let the boys sleep that night with us.
I kill them everyday. Big ones. Small ones. Mediums. It makes me a little sick to do it. If I miss, they scurry away quickly on what look like charred, skinny-fingered hands. It’s the first thing I do every morning. I come down stairs and do a spider check. I usually find one or more of one size or another. I’ve probably killed fifty spiders since we’ve been here. Killing the big ones feels like killing something real. Substantial. Not like a mosquito or a fly.
One of the Buddha’s precepts, of course, is not to kill. But we all kill all the time: when we breathe, when we sweep, when we vacuum or paint or cook. Our immune system is killing microbes all the time, thank God for that. So, it’s not a rule one can follow to the letter. I might spare the spiders, too, except for Aidan.
Who knows what the best practice is? One does one’s best to harm as little as possible on this sojourn through life. In the yoga tradition I was trained in back in the 1970s, we were taught to eat low on the food chain, killing what seems the lowest forms of consciousness, as far as we know. I still follow that practice. Plant food rather than animal food, seafood before fowl or mammals.
The sparrow parents kept bringing little grubs to their babies for a day and a half. But they didn’t know how to feed them. They would fly to the arbor on the terrace, sit there looking around, and then fly over to the wide concrete bench. It would stand there, looking around. A few inches away from them, the babies were lying there, their mouths open or closed, moving a wing or a foot. The parent would look back and forth, hop a bit, and then fly off. In a few minutes, the other parent would bring another grub and do the same thing.
They kept returning, doing this ritual again and again, bringing fresh grubs, flying over to the babies, hopping about them, while the babies were lying there dying, and flying off. I arranged the babies back in the nest, but they eventually rolled out again. Every time I went to the window, one of the parents would be bringing a new grub. It was heartbreaking.
On the last evening, only one of the chicks was still alive. The other was covered in ants. I thought they were both dead. But then I saw the last one twitching a leg or a wing. I still couldn’t “put it out of its misery.” A parent would still bring over a grub and not know what to do. The next morning it was over. Jennifer and I buried the last two before the boys got up.
Popular books about Buddhism talk about the need for “acceptance” in our lives. They say that to have peace we have to accept reality as it is and not resist it or fight against it. Eckhart Tolle and Tara Brach are two teachers who talk a lot about acceptance.
But I think “acceptance” is the wrong word. It creates a lot of confusion. People get turned off to Buddhism because they think, “You mean I’m supposed to accept racism? I’m supposed to accept torture, war, and injustice?” The death of innocent baby birds?
The problem is that the word in its common usage seems to imply a condoning, an acquiescence, an approval. We use the word when we approve of something. “Yes, I accept the terms of the contract.” “Yes, I accept that you are the boss.” “Yes, I accept the responsibility.”
But the state or mind or attitude that Buddhist teachers are trying to describe is something different. Language always fails us. It is not an attitude that is condoning or approving of or acquiescing in some horror staring us in the face. The whole point of Buddhism is to help people heal from suffering.
By saying that we should “accept” the reality in front of our noses, what these teachers mean is that we should not do what we often do, which is to react against and resist reality by spinning off into habitual patterns of conditioned thinking, which creates a kind of story or theory about our life that takes the place of our actual life.
For example, I come home and find that my partner has left the house a mess. I spin off into my habitual thoughts: “Damn it. I asked him to clean up after the football game. He always does this. I’m sick of it. Just last week, he left the mess downstairs after the poker party. Why can’t he clean up after himself? I always have to clean up. It’s just like it was with my last boyfriend. Men are such slobs . . .”
Or we fail at something at work. We go home and hit the gin-and-tonics or the ice cream. Running away into pleasurable sensation. Someone at work says something insensitive, and we spin off into what a horrible person he is, how “people like him” are insensitive, etc. How our job is crap, etc.
When Buddhist teachers talk about “acceptance,” what they really are trying to counsel us to do is to stay with our experience as it is and not to spin off into these habitual patterns and mental reactions. These patterns end up becoming a supposed reality we act out of but which may have little to do with the actual problem at hand. We are then acting out of a story in our heads, rather than acting out of the real situation that is before us. Often those stories were created when we were children. We are still acting out of them.
Rather than the word, “acceptance,” I think we could say that we need to “meet experience with clear seeing and an open heart.” Not condoning, but not running away, either.
The state of mind we are talking about is one that is open, free of automatic judgments, positive or negative. We meet the world with an open heart rather than with our clichéd stories.
So, what about the sparrows? How does one deal with that? One can spin off into judgments and theories: “It’s just nature.” “It’s the natural cycle of life.” “These things happen all the time.” “Animals don’t feel pain the way we do.” “The chicks will go on to another life.” “There’s a greater good behind this.” “The world is filled with suffering.” “The world is not fair.” “Life sucks.” “How could a loving God allow this to happen.” “There is no God.” “Life is hell.” Etc.
We use such theories as defenses against the simple sorrow that we feel. The sadness we feel before tragedy. I find it endlessly amazing how were are afraid of our own feelings. Judgments and conclusions, even the negative ones, pull us away from experience and into our heads, where we think we are safer.
Of course judgments and conclusions are necessary in many areas of our life. If we see an accident happen, we can see how it happened and learn from it. But the point here is that often these automatic patterns keep us from relating to what is actually in front of us.
So, it’s not that a Buddhist would “accept” the death of these birds in the sense of condoning or approving of it, but rather that he or she will not turn away from it or from the sorrow that comes up and run for the safety of a judgment or conclusion that will deaden the felt experience.
The first morning after the birds fell and I rearranged them in their nest, I went downstairs and told Jennifer and the boys I how sad I felt about them. I cried with them about the birds. I cry easily. Don’t worry, being a Buddhist doesn’t mean crying all the time. That’s just me. But I do believe that crying is a natural healing response and release of our sorrow. It is a spiritual practice. I highly recommend it, especially for men.
Pema Chodron says the heart of the spiritual path is this: We find ourselves pushed to the edge, and we soften.”
Can we stay present with what is, with the reality before us, even the feelings that arise within us, without spinning off into a mental trance? And if we stay with the present with clear seeing and an open heart, we do not become apathetic, but have a chance to act from a deeper place of intuitive wisdom and compassion than that which our ready-made opinions and judgments and reactive stories give us. With an open heart, action becomes spontaneous and compassionate, rather than pre-packaged and often inappropriate.
I don’t know that leaving the birds in the hope that the parents would be able to feed them was the “best” choice. But it seemed the most compassionate thing at the time. There is no right and wrong in situations like this. We act with our greatest, deepest compassion. We all do the best we can.
On the second morning, I cleaned up the mess before starting my meditation. I was glad that it was over. I lay the birds in a little box and wrapped them in a cloth.
That morning my meditation was filled with thoughts and feelings about the sparrows. When I opened my eyes a bird perched on the arbor. A red sunbird, my favorite bird of India. I’d only ever seen one or two of them, half-hidden in trees, in the distance, fluttering away. But here was one perched not fifteen feet from me in the clear morning sunlight with nothing between us! I felt inexpressible joy.
William Blake said, “Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.”
I believe that our emotional life is of a piece. To the extent that we are willing to feel sorrow and pain and not bury it or compartmentalize it or run away from it, to that extent we open our capacity for joy.
Was the sunbird a miracle appearing here at the end of this little avian family tragedy? Was it a message from the universe? Of course, it was. As Whitman said, every moment of our lives is a miracle and a message from the universe.
But such moments are not well translatable into words. Was the red sunbird some symbol of reassurance? A symbol of hope? A symbol of a truth or purpose that we can only intuit? Some totality that somehow incorporates and transforms suffering? Perhaps Nietzsche is right. The world can be justified by its beauty.
But now we are spinning off into interpretations, conclusions.
“Just stay with the sunbird,” I said myself. Drink in this scarlet color. Rejoice and be grateful for its sunlit presence. Feel the joy just as you cried for the sparrows. Give thanks for the curved beak and quick darting head. For its wet black eyes. Let it in, to work its wordless, healing power. Just stay present. Just stay, stay, stay.