Chapter 4 – We Have A Place (continued)
The suburban neighborhood that I live in has fairly robust populations of the usual squirrels, rabbits and birds. Add to that short list all the voles and moles, possums and raccoons, field mice and owls, toads and snakes and insects that at least make an appearance from time, and we have quite an inventory of fauna. Interestingly, though, despite our living in such close proximity, it’s actually quite seldom that I get to know any particular animal. Each robin or sparrow that visits the birdbath on any given day looks and acts pretty much the same as every other robin or sparrow. They don’t have much personality in that regard. They rarely display their individuality.
Occasionally, however, I do get to know a particular animal, and through that relationship, fleeting though it may be, I’m afforded a unique view of what it’s like to live entirely in the natural world. For instance, there was once a mockingbird that perched in the apple tree outside my bedroom window. Every morning around 4:00 or so he would commence to singing at the top of his little lungs – making it almost impossible for me to get any quality sleep for the rest of the morning. At times I resented that little bird for intruding on “my” space. At other times I felt as though we were kindred spirits. I was grieving the breakup of my marriage at the time, you see, and sleep was sweet refuge from the pain. But that little bird was also a regular reminder of the universality of my longing. His song was there in my pain. My pain was there in his song. I’ll never forget my deep sadness upon discovering the little pile of white and gray and black feathers scattered in a circle in the grass about whatever else was left of him. A cat had gotten him, or perhaps a hawk or an owl. Such is the way of the world, isn’t it?
There’s a squirrel that I’ve been seeing around the neighborhood for a couple of years now. “He” only has but a stub of a tail anymore – the result of some violent altercation that I can only imagine. Almost from the moment I laid eyes on him my curiosity gave way to concern. He was walking in strange fashion for a squirrel and I wondered whether his injuries might be more serious than just the loss of a tail. The passage of time assuaged my concerns, however. The awkwardness of his waddle is apparently only due to the absence of a tail to use as balance while hopping around in more squirrel-like fashion. Notwithstanding his debilitating injury, he seems to be as happy as a squirrel can be. If for no other reason than that my spirits are buoyed every time I happen to see him. And if it should come to pass that I find a little tailless carcass around the yard or in the street, I’ll shed a tear for him as well.
Most of all that lives and dies all around us does so anonymously. Perhaps that mockingbird lived out virtually the entirety of its life alone – with no one but his mother and father to care that he’d entered the world, and no one but me to care that he’d left. Perhaps that squirrel, awkward as he might appear, will never find a mate in the survival-of-the-fittest world in which squirrels dwell, and therefore never know whatever fulfillment there might be in starting a squirrel family of his own. And yet, despite the seeming indifference that the natural world displays toward the life or death of any one of its own, still everything has its place. Everything belongs. The universe has given rise to each and every being in whatever idiosyncratic glory they might embody, and each and every one of them knows precisely how to be.
It’s been this way since the beginning of life on earth – with everything belonging, and everything knowing how to be. We humans were no exception, for we too were once of the forest in all of its abundance and simplicity. Unfortunately, though, life for us has become so much more complicated. Our kind has fallen, and each of us has fallen too. Where once we knew exactly how to be, now it can seem as though we’re endlessly thrashing about in the underbrush. We’ve forgotten that we belong. We’ve forgotten how to be. We’ve forgotten that we have enough, that we are enough, that we know enough. Because of our forgetting, we can never seem to rest; and because of our inability to rest, we need to be reminded how to be. “Look at the birds of the air;” Jesus is reported to have said, “they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
Everything that lives carries within its being the wisdom of billions of years of evolution. Everything that lives thus embodies trust that it belongs – that it has a place. Children embody this trust as well. They enter this world not doubting for an instant that they belong – that they have a place. Sure enough, that trust can be taken from them prematurely if they should happen to be raised by an abusive parent or within a dysfunctional family; but even in the best of circumstances whatever trust we have will become lost in the course of our fall. At some point in our life we will begin to sow and reap, and as soon as that day comes we will begin to worry about the results. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Jesus went on to enquire of those who were listening to him speak of the birds of the air.
“You have the right to work,” Krishna said to the despairing Arjuna as he surveyed the next day’s battlefield, “but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working” (Prabhavananda, 1964, p. 40). The fact of the matter is that we are the fruits of the work of the universe. We are the fruit of billions of years of evolution – of countless beings sowing without ever reaping. The mockingbird, the tailless squirrel, and the child – they proceed with their work with the entirety of their being, without any thought of their own enrichment.
The wisdom of children, then, includes the trust that they belong, that they have a place in this world. They neither worry about the day to day concerns of how they will feed or clothe themselves nor the existential concerns that their fallen parents might be struggling with each day. Yes, we all eventually find a way to sow and reap, but the mind with which we do so will make all the difference in our lives. Will we spend our days worrying about whether we’ll ever find a mate with which to share this life, or will we simply sing our song with all the heart we have to give, come what may? Will we bemoan our hindered abilities or circumstances and retreat into a place of psychic poverty, or will we hop throughout our days in tailless glory?
I realize now that this understanding has been with me since I first began to explore the Nursery just beyond our garden gate. I knew just how to be when I was there – without ever needing to be taught. The world unfolded like a flower blossoming in my hands and I, in turn, blossomed completely into it. No, my understanding wasn’t one that I could articulate as I do now with words and concepts – it was understanding that I embodied. Such is the wisdom of children.
Prabhavananda, S., Isherwood C. (1964). The song of God: Bhagavad-Gita. (S. Prabhavananda & C. Isherwood, Trans.) Published by The New American Library of World Literature, Inc.
Flock of Birds courtesy of Faisal Akram via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank