Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ Hypocrisy and a Little Bird

Hypocrisy and a Little Bird

Life is not fair. Life is not precious. Life is cruel and cheap. A little bird re-taught me those lessons two days ago, when I made a big mistake that cost me nothing, and it made a little mistake that cost it its life.

I had been walking through the inner-city suburbs of Kitchener, enjoying the sunny afternoon, thinking about Descartes's gamble and trying to reconstruct the lyrics from a passage of the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast. I was heading off to help some friends with their garden, and I was in a fairly good mood. Children were riding their bikes outside. Folks were sitting on their porches, petting their dogs. Two grown men were throwing a softball around in their front yard. People were enjoying their Sunday afternoon, and -- for the most part -- I was enjoying mine as well.

Like much else in Kitchener, the inner-city suburbs I was walking through are old. Much of the community had been built in the early 1900s, before personal automobile use had entrenched itself in our social consciousness. The community had been designed with pedestrians in mind; the houses are small, built on smallish lots with easy access to the street. Not every house comes with a driveway, and garages are rare. The driveways that do exist are tucked beside their houses, rather than taking up lot space in the front yard. In many lots mature trees grow along the streets and in back yards, casting shade over the houses and laneways.

I had been walking in front of one of these small houses when I heard an odd sound behind me. It sounded like something between a hiss and a birdcall, and it was coming from the ground. I turned around to see a young bird standing in the middle of a concrete driveway. It waved its stubby wings and cried that hissing birdcall again.

The bird was young but it wasn't a baby. It was covered in dark feathers; in the shade I was not able to tell whether the feathers were black, brown or blue. Its beak was big and yellow -- the beak looked too big for the bird's little head. The bird's legs looked long as well, but the bird seemed to be squatting down. I did not know what species of bird it was -- perhaps a robin? It looked very much like one of those baby birds in the wildlife pictures, where a nestful of hungry young mouths gape hungrily at a worm that a tired parent bird has brought back for the kids. The bird was a comical little figure, but as soon as I saw it my heart sank. I suspected that the bird had fallen out of its nest to the driveway below.

To the left of the driveway grew a deciduous tree; to the right a coniferous one. I thought I heard peeping from the evergreen tree, but I could not see a nest. I did not see any way the bird would be able to get back home. Its wings and feathers were not developed enough for it to be able to fly back. I doubted it would be able to walk up the tree; it could barely balance on the ground. Its parents would not be able to carry such a heavy burden up to the nest. Worst of all, I couldn't help it up even if I knew where the nest was: I knew its parents would likely reject any child that smelled of human. In short: if left on its own, that bird was going to die. If a predator did not get to it, starvation would.

I tried taking the easy way out: I phoned Animal Control, hoping that they would be able to deal with the bird's situation. But it was Sunday, and since little birds don't fall out of trees on Sundays Animal Control was closed. The answering machine I reached offered me another number to call in a "life or death" situation, but I suspected -- perhaps wrongly -- that the answering machine was not referring to the life or death of little birds. It is also possible that Animal Control would not have been able to deal with the little bird even if they had been open, but I have not confirmed this.

Allowing the Animal Control people to take care of the situation would have made me and the bird a lot happier, but it would have been skirting the issue: my system of values was telling me that it would be wrong for this bird to suffer and die because it had fallen out of its nest, and my system of values was telling me that it was my responsibility to help prevent this bird's suffering. One way to do that would have been to let Animal Control take care of the situation; because that option was unavailable more responsibility rest on my shoulders, and my shoulders alone.

Maybe you don't believe that I had any responsibility towards the little bird's plight. After all, this was not the only baby bird that had ever fallen out of a nest; why was I not responsible for the plight of all these other little birds? Why, indeed, am I not responsible for all of the plights of all of the living things suffering in the world?

In some sense, I believe that I am responsible for every plight of every living creature throughout the world, because in some sense I am connected to every living creature throughout the world. My belief system tells me that connections bring with them responsibility, and to ignore those responsibilities is immoral. At the same time, I am not omnipotent: my sphere of influence is limited. I am only weakly connected to many things in the world; my connections to a rice plant in China or a girl in Austria or Kevin Bacon are weak. But other connections are strong: my connections to my family, or to my neighbourhood, or to the trees growing in my landlord's backyard. For some stupid reason I cannot justify, I feel that my responsibilities increase as connections get stronger.

I am not trying to say that my responsibility to this little bird was stronger than my responsibilities towards starving people around the world, or stronger than my responsibilities towards the rainforests of Brazil and British Columbia. But when I met that little bird on that driveway, my connection to that bird got stronger, and my responsibilities increased accordingly. It felt more intense because I had stumbled into that situation. You can call it God's Will or you can call it fate or you can call it serendipity or you can call it blind random chance -- it doesn't really matter to me. All I know is that this little bird might have benefitted from my help, and I felt that helping the bird would have been the right thing to do.

Why? Because my values told me that it is wrong for things to suffer needlessly. My values told me that waste is a terrible sin, and that allowing this bird to die because it had fallen out of its nest would have been a terrible sin. This bird was not like the other dead birds you see on sidewalks and on roads: the baby foetal-birds that attract clouds of flies; the adult birds that have run into signs or buildings, whose feathers you see scattered on the ground. When you walk past those birds, you can see they are dead. Their suffering on this world has ended, and while their suffering may have been great -- especially for those birds chewed up by lawnmowers -- there is nothing you can do for them now.

On the other hand, this little bird was alive. That made all the difference to me. It looked plump and healthy. It waddled in little circles on the driveway, flapping its stubs and squawking. There was no reason to believe this bird would die within the next few days -- except that it had left its nest too early, and I couldn't put it back. That made all the difference, and it meant that if somebody did not help this bird, it was as good as dead.

I did not feel that was fair. I did not feel that was fair at all.

You and I both know the response to that complaint: Grow up, we say. Life isn't fair. Life is not supposed to be fair. Bad things happen all the time. You deal with them and move on.

I can't argue against that reasoning. You and I are right: life is not fair. Specifically, nature is not fair to individuals. The rules of nature apply well to keeping systems of life going: ecosystems and life itself thrive under Mother Nature's guiding hand. But Mother Nature doesn't particularly care what happens to individuals -- or even species, for that matter. So long as some individuals are able to reproduce and keep a species strong, it doesn't really matter who lives and who dies. So long as all the niches of an ecosystem are filled, it doesn't even matter which species of life go extinct and which survive.

Nature doesn't care all that much. I suspect only comfortable, First-World humans sitting on top of the food chain would be arrogant enough to think otherwise. Just ask a wild rabbit: rabbits live in fear because they know they are dinner for a lot of other animals. Rabbits have so many babies because a lot of those babies are going to end up dead before they can reproduce. Just ask the asparagus I ate for lunch: farmers picked that asparagus for me, killing it in its youth so that I could enjoy a tasty, nutritious meal. As the Tool hidden track says, "life feeds on life. This is everything." In the process, a lot of unfair things happen. In the process, a lot of little animals make small mistakes and lose their lives.

I benefit greatly from this game. A lot of organisms have suffered and died so that I might live. And that is why my system of values is nonsensical. Life has to suffer. Life works because of suffering. If you don't like those rules, you can either commit suicide and opt out of the game completely, or you can try to follow a strict Jainish lifestyle (which prohibits consumption of anything that kills an organism). My stumbling across an unfortunate little bird's situation did not change the realities of life.

But knowing that the bird might provide a meal for some raccoon or cat did not make me feel any better. I did not like the rules of nature's game any more, because -- rightly or wrongly -- I live my life not expecting to suffer too much, and knowing that other things are going to suffer makes me suffer, too. Intervening in that bird's fate may have been hypocritical, but it would have made me feel better.

I had some options. I could have decided to kill the bird and end its suffering sooner, rather than later. That would probably have been the most sensible thing to do. The bird was going to suffer greatly within the next few days anyways, so why not kill it quickly and reduce its suffering as much as possible? Once you accept the idea that the bird would not survive, this option makes a lot of sense. But I am weak and hypocritical, and I was unwilling to sacrifice my peace of mind by explicitly making the bird suffer. This is the same hypocrisy that prohibits me from eating meat, on the basis that I would not be able to kill a cow or pig or chicken with my own hands, even as I give tacit permission for farmers to kill all sorts of weeds and pests so that I might enjoy fresh, bug-free vegetables. It is a weak, unsustainable attitude to take, but unfortunately it is deeply entrenched, and I could not bring myself to hurt the bird myself.

Another option would have been far more humane: I could have tried to raise the bird myself. I could have put the bird in a shoebox with some grass, and I could have learned how to raise wild birds properly, and I could have cared for the bird until it could fend for itself. Of course there would have been problems: I don't know the first thing about raising wild birds. I would have been likely to botch the job, causing the bird to suffer needlessly anyways. But certainly the bird had a better chance of survival under my care than sitting alone on the driveway.

I think the biggest barrier, though, was my irresponsibility. Taking care of that bird would have meant I would have to take responsibility for it. I would have to be there to feed it and take care of it. I would have to deal with the idea of feeding it live insects or worms to keep it alive. I would have to learn about how to raise it properly. I would have to be its surrogate parent, or it would die. I did not want to cope with that responsibility. I did not want to bring that bird into my life and increase my connection to it.

That was a selfish, stupid attitude to take. Nature certainly did not care whether that bird lived or died. Nobody else in the neighbourhood seemed to care whether that bird lived or died. That bird may have cared whether it lived or died, but it did not have enough power to control its own fate. I had that power, and I cared enough about the bird that I did not want it to suffer -- but obviously, I did not care enough about the bird to take action and prevent its suffering, because I refused to take responsibility for its life. In doing so, I failed my conscience and I failed the little bird.

I ended up taking the coward's way out. I did nothing, hoping that somebody else would be responsible enough to care for the bird, but knowing that I was essentially condemning the bird to death, and possibly condemning it to a great deal of suffering as well.

I left that little bird on its driveway. I came back to check on it once. By that time it had waddled underneath the coniferous tree. A little human boy was crouched underneath the tree, inspecting the little bird. I don't know what happened after that. Maybe the boy took the bird home. Maybe the boy told his parents about the bird, and they rescued it together. Maybe the boy tortured the bird, or stepped on it, or fed the bird to his cat. Maybe the boy left the bird alone and hoped somebody else would take care of the problem. I don't know. I walked home, trying not to step on ants.

I doubt the story had a happy ending. I have not attempted to walk down that road again, for fear of what I might see. I don't want to see the bird dead, but I don't want to see the bird alive either, because I know I will end up failing that little bird again.