Vast Forces and a Cardinal's Song: On Death, Part 2

My last column ended by comparing our lives to a song, and with the reflection: But if we live with awareness and gratitude, compassion and love, we will face the end of the song with grace, knowing that the composer and performer is not us, but forces vastly larger, more creative, and (almost) infinitely more enduring.

I've been asked to expand on this thought. What are these "forces"? How are they larger and more creative and enduring?

We can start small. Walking my dog this morning through narrow, hilly neighborhood streets, I heard the brilliant "pyou pyou" of a cardinal standing on a tree limb about twenty feet over my head. The bird was only about seven inches long, probably weighed less than two ounces, with a small pointed beak surrounded by quarter inch of black, a tuft of feathers for a pointed crown, and a shockingly red breast and wings. "How does it do that," I thought, "this tiny thing making a noise that can be heard for blocks? A call louder than the loudest whistle you ever heard from that friend in high school who could put two fingers in his mouth and bring forth a shriek that made people cover their ears and would stop cabs in the street."

After wishing the bird good luck in making a nest and finding a mate, I kept turning it over in my mind: "How does he do that?" I really didn't want the evolutionary history of bird sounds, or a structural account of his beak, throat, and lungs. I was way beyond science here, and into the sheer wonder of it.

By analogy: Sometimes we look at the world's horrors (the Holocaust, slavery, sexual trafficking, Hiroshima, Dresden, current levels of starvation) and, despite all our sophisticated political explanations, still feel that we cannot understand how such things can be. Similarly, in moments of grace, we can feel the same lack of understanding, only this time with joy and boundless gratitude rather than despair.

How does the cardinal make that sound? Because the universe has been working for fourteen billion years to create just that bird at that time on that branch on that street. And it has also been working to create me—the person who can delight in the sound and marvel at the universe that made it possible.

Neither the bird nor I will be here—cosmically speaking—for very long. Death is just around the corner (how big the corner is I cannot say) for both of us. Is this a great tragedy? A loss to be hated and feared?

Not for me, at least not today. Today I realize that condemning any reality always presupposes an alternative. "Death is horrible?" "Compared to what?"

Rather, I take comfort in having been here at all. That the universe came into existence, and that the combined forces of particles, atoms, gravity, the strong force and the weak force, molecules, cells, DNA, evolution, weather patterns, and the like have enabled me to exist.

These are the forces so much more powerful, creative, and long-lived than my own little self. These are the forces to which I feel compelled and privileged to bow in gratitude.

That it ever was, and that I got to be a part of it. And that along with the natural/physical forces there have been millions of human beings in their own quiet or noisy ways inventing language, science, culture, art, religion, human rights, equality, poetry, chocolate cake, and peanut butter.

Could my life have been easier? You bet, but it also could have been much harder. Have I suffered? Give me a few hours and I'll tell you some details that would make your hair stand on end. But at least I got to be here, to love and be loved, listen to Beethoven and Bach, see Mount Everest, caress my wife's face, and hold my daughter when she was born. Did I make all that happen? Maybe one-tenth of one-tenth of one-tenth of one-tenth . . . (you get the idea) of it. The rest was the product of all those other forces: impersonal laws of nature, wonderful chance evolutionary developments, the creative capacity of humans and animals and plants, and the support of air, earth, water, and fire.

And they all brought me to the cardinal this morning. Scared of death? Sure I am; I'm no hero and I'll probably fight against the dying of the light like anyone else.

But ultimately, if I have an ultimately, I'm just damn glad I got to be here. And damn grateful to everyone (and I mean that in absolutely the widest sense) who made it possible.

12/2/2022 9:02:28 PM
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  • Roger Gottlieb
    About Roger Gottlieb
    Roger S. Gottlieb ( is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His newest book is Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters.