Hawks and Sparrows
Yesterday I watched a hawk and pigeon engage in mortal combat; or, rather, a pigeon struggling to escape a hawk that had homed in on it. The pigeon would escape one assault only to be attacked again, dodging and weaving until it succumbed to the hawk’s talons.
That spectacle prompted an acquaintance I was with to recall how he once saw a hawk pin a sparrow against the wall of his house. Impasse. No matter which way the poor terrified sparrow dodged and weaved, the hawk blocked every route of escape until it went in for the kill.
My acquaintance was rooting for the hawk. He doesn’t like sparrows or pigeons. He, like many farmers, considers them pests on the same low level as racoons or mice (for which he has a near pathological and neurotic hatred). In fact, there are not many beings amongst living nature for whom he has much appreciation or sympathy at all. I had once watched him insanely dive under a moving combine to try and kill a field mouse whose nest had been disturbed. His mad act, in which he risked severe injury and even death for himself just to try and kill a mouse, brought to mind Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest With a Plough” as contrast. Burns could not speak of the mouse as an “it”. To him, the mouse was a “her”.
So, it was understandable that my acquaintance would identify with the hawk. He is not big on empathy. In fact, he is very narcissistic, and I know him to walk in all possible paths of human folly (but which he prefers to refer to as his distinguishing “eccentricities”).
My own feelings on observing the struggle of the hawk and the pigeon were more complex — a certain sadness at the spectacle along with a certain elation. The pigeon had run out of time. I felt compassion for the terror of the pigeon, the sparrow, and the mouse. I empathised with the hawk’s need and fierce exultation in the hunt. But mostly I felt that here was a perfect spectacle to serve as a parable — a dharma lesson — something that might bestir my acquaintance from his narcissistic stupour.
In some ways, the dramatic spectacle, and the story of the hawk and the sparrow, show why we do not live between the poles of “pleasure and pain” as the utilitarian ethic has it, but between terror and wonder. So I turned to my acquaintance and remarked to him that one day we are that hawk, but the next we are that sparrow and that pigeon, pinned against a wall with no escape. The hawk is death, and none of us eludes it. We, too, end up as hunted beings pinned against a wall.
Whether it had the desired effect I don’t know. My intent was to arouse a sense of empathy and to induce a mood of sobriety in him because his follies — typical of the follies of the present — all arise from a delusion of personal immortality and self-importance, those things characteristic of narcissism and the culture of narcissism, and of what Ernest Becker called “the denial of death” which makes for childishness and infantilism.
There is a high degree of cowardice in only identifying with the hawk while refusing to recognise oneself and one’s own inevitable fate also in the sparrow or the pigeon or the mouse.
My acquaintance is not unique (although he thinks he is). It is one of those great deficiencies of the mental-rational consciousness and its utilitarian ethic that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain is considered the essence of the rational life (the secularised and rationalised theology of “good versus evil”). And indeed it is, within that context. But there is more to us than pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance. Our contemporary pedagogy and culture not only induce narcissistic attitudes as the norm. It also cripples us for the task of achieving real and full maturity as human beings.
Castaneda’s don Juan stated that the art of the warrior and the man of knowledge was “to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive”. I perceived the truth of that in the lesson of the hawk and the pigeon. Don Juan’s formula generates a different kind of human being than the one who merely seeks pleasure and avoids pain, for whom the extremes of Disneyland versus Terrorism (or Jihad Versus McWorld) becomes the “new normal” instead, even as a distorted, surrogate form of truth.
The truth of ourselves and of our false consciousness about our real situation will not be denied for long. In one way or another, it will assert itself… even apocalyptically and catastrophically. Or even as farce.