The blessing that is a curse

Posted by on 06.29.10 | 3 Comments
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I have been gone for a while, in more ways than one, but now am circling back into view of my own life here in Spokane. One of the things I did to re-enter earth’s orbit was to read some posts on the VTH. I was profoundly affected by Tania’s of about a week ago – the one about the starlings - so if you want context for this post and haven’t read that yet, go do that and come on back.

I have killed only one bird in my life, and it was a horrible experience. A cat got to a sparrow and mauled it pretty badly before I rescued it. A glance revealed that the bird was not going to recover, at least not in any way that I could facilitate, so I killed it, all the while wanting to kill the cat that did this. It occurred to me then, and many times since, that the cat was just being a cat, and the bird was just being a bird. They can’t really think about what they are doing and whether it is good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust. They just do what they are hard wired to do, and in the case of cats it is to kill birds and other creatures smaller than they. We know this and there is nothing particularly deep or profound in that observation.

The same of course is true with starlings. They do what they are hard wired to do, which is to take over whatever environment they happen to occupy, chasing off other birds, wrecking nests, and generally reproducing at far higher rate than competing species. Of all the smaller birds they are among the most successful in Darwinian terms, and they are no more reflective about this than the sparrow that got injured bird or the cat that injured it. Even if we could speak “starling” it would do no good to explain to them that this behavior is anti-social and they need to stop it and begin to get along nicely with other avian species. Such an appeal would make no sense no matter how couched. Starlings have no way to objectify themselves enough to evaluate the impact of their own behavior on the world around them, and so no appeal to their “higher natures” would have any effect whatsoever.

But we are not like that, we have a gift which is a curse. For apart, possibly, from some marine mammals, we are the one species on earth that does reflect; we alone can get outside ourselves far enough to look at our own behavior and the behavior of other species and make judgments. It is this capacity that makes the whole notion of “ethics” and “morality” possible in the first place. If you can’t reflect, if you can’t judge, if you can’t make decisions, then it makes no sense to speak of “good” or “evil.” Such terms, and the conceptualities that arise from them, don’t exist within the mental and psychic framework of creatures that can’t reflect on themselves. They are simply doing what nature programs them to do without any ability to critique that behavior and evaluate it on any basis whatsoever, even on whether or not it helps them survive.

This strange and wonderful ability to objectify ourselves and look at our behavior as though seeing it through other eyes, makes life really painful some times. Killing an injured sparrow was one of the worst, most horrible experiences of my life, but I had to do it. I could reflect on what had happened and make a judgment. Tania had a different experience with a different species of bird, but came to the same horrible conclusion, that this is something she had to do, whether she wanted to or not, and she did not want to.

The necessity of acting as she did, and the pain which her action caused, both arose from the same source, that ability to get outside ourselves and make decisions about us and our world. Were she not able to objectify herself, and thus create the possibility of moral decision making, she would either have ignored the starlings altogether, or killed them without the slightest compunction, depending upon her genetic and psychic hardwiring. But she is able to get outside herself, and therefore is capable of moral thought, and so enters that strange world we all occupy at times where what the moment requires of us causes us deep pain, sometimes even scarring us for life.

I felt deeply for her as I read her post, and I continue to feel deeply for all of us who are blessed/cursed with this ever-so-strange capacity to look at ourselves as though through other eyes. This blessing/curse is of course the foundation of our unique kind of nobility, and constitutes our greatest responsibility; for as the custodians of a moral perspective we have the responsibility to use it well and wisely for the sake of each other and the world we live in. We don’t always – perhaps even not often – do that, but there always remains that ability to retrace our steps, to evaluate, judge, even to repent and atone. And if indeed in the fullness of time we all stand face to face with with whatever unnameable and to us incomprehensible Greatness that sustains all creation – which I believe we will – I think it very likely that we will be judged not on how well we followed some arbitrary rules about comportment, but how well we used this one great blessing/curse in the service of the world in which we live.





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