The span of a life

A sparrow died at my feet not long ago.  I went out at night and there it was, awkwardly sprawled on my driveway, shadowed by the spotlight above so I couldn’t tell at first what I was looking at.  It was a bird.  I thought it was already dead.  But ever so slowly it stirred, and its head turned in my direction, as if it were looking at me.  It saw nothing in this world, though.  It was staring at death.

In the morning, I picked up the dead sparrow with a shovel and dumped it in the trash bin:  no requiems were sung.

What’s the value of a life?  Death would appear to negate each life, to drain each life of value:  in fact, the opposite is the case.  Imagine a great feast, with meat and fish and fowl, and breads of all kinds, and fruits and cheeses, and cakes and candies – only one is forced to gorge forever.  Imagine Hamlet droning on endlessly, day after day, with Polonius getting up from behind the arras, and Rosencranz and Guildenstern not dead, and the duel a perpetual tie.  The joy of feasting is its rarity.  The power of Hamlet flows from the fateful actions of its characters.  Life has value precisely because it is brief, because it is a scarce commodity.  And it is also, of course, a feast, and a tragedy.

What is the value of death?  I have been reflecting on this since that poor sparrow chose me as the audience for the last act of its brief play.  Death comes unbidden, and it comes for all.  Days, weeks, or years from this instant, I like the sparrow will turn my head, looking for familiar things, for comfort, and I’ll see nothing but the end.  Knowing this embues my life with a tremendous sensual and moral energy, fueled by a kind of desperate freedom.  Many of our anxieties, our slavish moments, have to do with money, or work, or prestige, and are the products of irritated vanity or frustrated desire.  What trivial stuff, if one has a family, and a community, and health, and a questioning mind!

Death should be the great liberator.  I don’t mean the act of dying; I mean, rather, that the contemplation of life’s brevity should provide a bracing perspective, like the view from a high mountaintop.  Every minute demands a fateful choice.  Every action is dramatic:  that is to say, irrevocable.  Why waste them on insipid poses?  Why taint them with vanity or selfishness?  Since every human being measures himself by his life, why not raise the standard to the highest that it is humanly possible to achieve?

I remember the allegory in Bede’s History that helped convert the Saxon king Edwin to Christianity:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors.  In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging.  This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another.  While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came.  Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before his life or of what follows, we know nothing.”

The argument rested on Christian faith, and offered to explain the mystery of the winter’s chaos out of which we emerged and to which we must return.  Much more interesting to me, because it lies in our hands to solve, is the mystery of that warm but fleeting hall of life.

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