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the starling

June 8, 2010

Yesterday I worked at the wildlife enter.  While there I rescued a starling – a little bird not old enough to fly. This was surprising.

There are hundreds of birds living wild in the trees on the grounds of the center, and I had been wondering if any birds living there would need our help. It’s a good place to fall out of a nest, just like hurting one’s self near a hospital is good, if one is to be hurt.

It was about 7:30 pm, gorgeous light outside on this evening in early June.

I mostly work in the main building, in the juvenile songbird room, but still go outside to the larger enclosures and to work at the wash station, cleaning the poop and other filth off our cages, equipment, and animal care accessories.

I had gone into one of the two wings of the outdoor enclosures to hand-feed a small flock of crows that are not ready to be released yet.

I did this, but also went into several flight cages to make short videos and take still photographs. I know that staff are allowed to take still pictures and show them but I don’t know if we are allowed to make videos. The boss can be rather difficult, and so I thought it best not to ask but just do it and try not to get caught.

So, I took some time to make the videos. I’m not getting paid for my work, and therefore don’t work when I don’t feel like it. Sometimes I just observe the animals, sometimes I bring a camera.

I had been focused on using the camera, and was also worried about getting caught, so, in my usual absent-minded way, I forgot where I put the bowl and tweezers I used to feed the crows chopped up dead mice (they were dead before we chopped up the mice, we are not that inhumane).

I couldn’t find the bowl – went into the cages I’d been in, and nope. Finally found it outside the main door to that particular wing, and just before I found it, as I was exited the songbird cage nearest to the main door, I spotted a very young starling, that didn’t have all its feathers.

At first I thought the bird had sneaked out of the cage I had just left, then realized it was far too young to have been put in a flight cage, especially since it could not fly.

I don’t know how the little starling ended up where it did, or where it had wandered from. There was no tree right above this area. Perhaps it heard the sounds of the birds in the flight cage, and was drawn toward the sounds.

It snuck under the main door before I could catch it. Although it could not fly, it was nimble on its feet. It ran down behind a shed, and I ran around the shed, chased it for a few yards as it ran behind the mammal cages, and then I finally caught it.

Before I started working with the songbirds, I was worried about holding them safely, yet securely. This is in part because back in the summer of 1991, someone had found a young bird, and let me hold it. The bird squirmed out of my hand, and I dropped it, and it died. I felt horrible. To make matters worse, I was around several other people who already didn’t like me much. But mainly, I just felt terrible for the bird.

Turns out holding the birds is usually not that difficult.

And, since I tend to hold them while indoors,if they get loose in the room, I just get the net and eventually catch them.  I’ve had some practice this past month since I’ve been working with these little birds, and didn’t drop the starling. I brought it into the other songbird room,, the one for the youngest birds.

I was happy that it was so beautiful outside, warm but not hot, and that I was able to save a bird. But, almost immediately after I’d picked up the bird, I felt a strange existential uneasiness. I have been wondering about the meaning of life, if it indeed has any meaning, for sometime. Not just the meaning of my life, but of life in general. Nature is beautiful, but also impersonal, and often cruel.. Does any life mean anything? Why work so hard to save birds or whales or people?

Some folks answer this kind of inquiry easily. They have found a faith that works for them, and they have their answers. This is not so for me. I do not have answers, and doubt anyone actually does. Some people strongly think they do, they would say they “know” they do, but I don’t agree with them. If one truly knows a god exists, there is no room for faith. Faith is believing in what is not known, and I am not a person of faith.

I speculate, worry, wonder about meaning. This thought that I was almost instantly beset by was, “Does saving this bird’s life mean anything?” I don’t know. It might not even mean anything to the bird, which, I assume, is incapable of rational thought.

The timing of my bird rescue had me wondering, though. If I had not forgotten where I’d put the feeding gear, I would not have spent time looking for it, and would not have walked out of that area when I did. I would not have seen the starling, and the starling would have likely become dinner for the feral cat that patrols the grounds come dusk.

It was a strange mix of feelings – joy that I’d saved the bird, but wondering if it mattered at all. Troubling.

I don’t have the answer. I don’t know if there is meaning in the world, something absolute.

If one studies science, ecosystems for example, it is amazing how so many things fit together. Biology is also amazing. Our bodies are terribly complex. Even the anatomy of a flower and the process of photosynthesis is quite remarkable. Is it possible for me to believe no creator being had a hand in all this? That all this amazing beauty and logic just happened? That sometimes is as hard for me to believe as it is to believe in a god.

Where did nature come from? I do not know. Scientists give us the theory of the big bang, but who started the big bang. And, if there is a creator god, where did that god come from? Who created that creator god? A person considering these things for long enough a time will drive one’s self mad!

I can see the appeal of religion. People get answers, structure, purpose, community. But for those of us who feel religions (all of them) have at least some teachings that are absolutely absurd, the answers are likely to be false and empty, the structure based on nothing, purpose an illusion, and the community of believers a collection of rather gullible people. So we outsiders continue to be outsiders, and try not to go nuts, try not to wonder too much. We may think ourselves superior to those in religious groups, but we are often more lonely, less happy, so who is really smarter?

We cannot help but be ourselves though, even if we pay a cost. We are who we are.

I had been wondering about Western philosophy. It has not interested me much in the past, first because for over 2o years I was trying desperately (and failing) to be devoutly Christian. After I decided I was most certainly not a Christian, I studied religions, especially Eastern religions, most recently Buddhism (see the my many entries on Buddhism if you want).

I have since abandoned interest in Buddhism, and the only religious philosophy from the East that holds any interest for me is Taoism, which I might start learning about again – re-listening to two audiobooks by Benjamin Hoff, who uses the Winnie the Pooh stories to explain Taoist teachings. The man is a genius, I think. I will likely listen to these again soon, and go back to my Taoist books perhaps, but have started to take an interest in Western philosophy.

I have a book that starts with the ancient Greeks, and goes from there, but I don’t want to tackle all that. Steve Martin, the great American comedian, banjo-player and philosopher said that after taking most college classes, students forget everything, but in philosophy classes, students learn just enough to screw themselves up for the rest of their lives. Perhaps philosophy really is a quagmire.

I had attempted to read Nietzche, but didn’t try for long. He, in some of his writings, was responding to past philosophers, whose works I had not read, and didn’t really want to, so I stopped.

For years though, the name Camus has been in the back of my mind, resurfacing once in awhile. Many years ago, I noticed mouldering Camus paperbacks at the local used book store, and though.. hmm.. maybe this guy’s got something.

I still haven’t read any of Camus’ writings, except for a bit of “The Stranger,” but tonight I got a copy of a book from the library called, “Introducing Camus.” It’s one of those informative books with lots of pretty good illustrations. Don’t snicker. Just because a book on a serious subject has illustrations does not make it a frivolous and useless text. I read almost half the book tonight.

Camus talks about life being absurd – that there is no god and life has no inherent, intrinsic meaning, and that there is no life after death. He states that one can only lead a full life by coming to terms with the absurd. To do this, one must reconcile the irrationality of life, with the inner longing to find an absolute meaning. One most somehow come to a place of peace with this contradiction, accept it as part of being human, relax, and move on, live one’s life.

Maybe Camus is right. I have sometimes thought along those lines, although had not thought of the contrast between the irrational and the inner longing, and being comfortable with this being the reality. I had thought, and maybe still think, that there is some absolute reality, and that, for whatever reason – mental illness, a capricious god, or something else unfathomable, I am just not properly attuned to the absolute reality, which some might call God.

I feel that there has to be something, and that nature is not entirely meaningless. That morality is not meaningless, that there is a purpose, but often, I feel the opposite as well. I feel nihilism creeping in – that nothing has any value, even that I could go around killing people or kill myself, and what does it matter really? Yes, it would matter to the loved ones of the recently deceased, but apart from that, does it matter?

We are on an infinitesimal blue spec in an unremarkable solar system, in an inconspicuous galaxy, in an un-imaginably large universe, and this universe, and this universe might not even be the only one! My death or yours might have no more significance than the death of a microbe. It might not matter at all. Period.

Disturbing to think along this line, but then, it can be comforting too. The worst mistake we make will not matter. It might matter during the incredibly short (but seemingly terribly long) term of our lives, and some mistakes might have generational consequences, but do any of these things really matter? Eventually, if we humans do not destroy the Earth, it will someday cease to be. The sun that nourishes and sustains all life on this planet will in the future go super-nova, greatly increasing in size, and will destroy the Earth. Time marches on. Is there really any enduring significance?

In the movie “Gladiator,” Russell Crowe says, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” Monotheists, especially Christians and Muslims, will certainly agree with this. Those of us who are agnostic, atheist, Hindu or Buddhist have our doubts. Hindus and Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but not only that, the end of reincarnation is taught as well. The soul is not permanent, although it may last through many lifetimes. There is still an end. There is the final death, and then there is no more.

I’m muddled, I have to say. Christians revere and study C.S. Lewis. His writings have had quite an effect on me, and I’ve just read his fiction. But even his fiction points to a sublime, transcendent world that is greater than ours, and that this longing in our hearts for meaning and order, and this terrible feeling of dissatisfaction are signs that deep down, we know there is an ultimate reality and a heaven and a god. There is one way to live, and there is a perfect place to be that we only see glimpses here – through a glass darkly, as the saying goes.

And perhaps Lewis is right! I don’t know, and might never know, and this longing can drive me into depression and suicidal thoughts because I feel I can’t know. Most of the time I was a Christian, I felt estranged from God, that God didn’t like me, and I never felt that Jesus was real, except that he sure seemed real to other people. It’s not pleasant to go through one’s life feeling that there is a god and god is displeased and refuses to have communication with the believer.

Perhaps it would have been far better for me if I had not read any books by C.S. Lewis, and his non-fiction writings are just fantasies, as unbelievable as the Chronicles of Narnia.

I will try not to let my head split in two – or more – directions.

There is another Christian writer, and he is still alive. His name is Ravi Zacharias. He might just be the most erudite Christian apologeticist around today. His talks and audiobooks  have also made me wonder. He goes around debating atheists on college campuses – Ivy league schools, not backwater universities, and can make very convincing arguments for the existence of God. I have not heard his talks on Christ, and I don’t want to. What if even some of what he says makes sense? I can possibly be a theist of some kind, but not a Christian. It is one thing to believe in the existence of some form of god, but an entirely different thing to believe in Christ, and all that is taught about him. That is too much for me.

Is Ravi right? I don’t know.

I am also wondering about the existence of the soul. One of the reasons I felt quite disillusioned with Buddhism was that I was taught there was no soul, no permanent self. That the “self” was an illusion. This teaching made me feel rather unpleasant inside, and mentally unhinged. A Buddhist agitator – a guy who goes around trying to convince people that Buddhism is true (Buddhism is not a common religion for agitator types to be attracted to) – told me that this uneasy feeling was only due to my clinging to the spurious notion of the “self.”

I could not help feeling that he was somehow wrong. I don’t know if what I call “self” or “soul” is permanent or impermanent, but regardless, I do think it is there. I think I exist ( and no I do not want to open of the solipsistic can of worms). I don’t like the idea that what I call me is an illusion. I get all dizzy. That doesn’t work for me.  I ‘m pretty sure I have a self, even though I don’t take care of myself very well, and sometimes even have thoughts of killing myself. But still, I think I have a self.

I don’t know if there is absolute meaning or truth. Some faiths talk about truth, goodness, and beauty. I suppose I shall have to settle for a rather subjective appreciation of what is beautiful and what is good. And maybe that’s all right!

I don’t know if it means anything that I rescued the starling. Saving the bird sure got me to think though, and to write this blog.

One thing I do know – with our care, the starling I rescued will grow up, be healthy and join the other birds in their singing, and maybe that is good enough.

Maybe I should not look for any other meaning.

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