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    I am impressed with existence lately

    Louie surveys the killing floor

    NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON, in this recent CBS video, is asked if he believes in God. He says, among other things,

    The more I look at the universe, the less convinced I am that there is something benevolent going on… I look at disasters that afflict Earth, and life on Earth: volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, disease, pestilence, congenital birth defects. You look at this list of ways that life is made miserable on Earth by natural causes, and I just ask, “How do you deal with that?”

    I have no problems if, as we probe the origins of things, we bump into the Bearded Man. If that shows up, we good to go! Okay? Not a problem.

    There’s just no evidence of it.

    I get that.

    A stray red tabby showed up at our house a few months ago. We fed him tuna and named him Louie. He stayed. Nowadays he mainly dozes and strikes poses in our backyard. He is a living lawn ornament, graceful, discreet, inoffensive.

    Except when he catches small animals, traps them in our glassed-in patio, sets them “loose,” and slowly tortures them. During these hours—and I do mean hours—our backyard, nicely landscaped and full of flowers and photosynthesis, becomes Louie’s Theatre of Death. All readers with outdoor cats know the mindless cruelty of which I speak.

    The other night Henry and I were in the kitchen adjacent to the patio. We looked out through the sliding glass doors and saw that Louie had a baby rabbit under the patio table. I groaned. There was nothing we could do—the little guy was very bad off—so we turned our attention elsewhere. Thirty minutes later we heard a horrible shriek. Again and again it happened, three times, each cry loud and rising and abruptly cut off. It echoed in my head for several days afterward. A baby rabbit’s death scream is not something you want to hear.

    And although I have never witnessed it, I am aware that human beings sometimes suffer such ends: early, natural, brutal, mindless.

    So I get it when Tyson finds no evidence that “something benevolent is going on.” Life is death-saturated.

    Yet: Here we are.

    This fact is often overlooked.

    When I was a kid I played tee ball in a local church league. I remember the uniforms and the heat and the black rubber tee and the chain link dugout. I also remember trying to smack the ball between infielders and make clean throws to the cutoff man, but I was no athlete. Neither my heart nor my head was in the game.

    There were distractions. If you ask my mom what she remembers about those days she’ll tell you how my efforts in the field consisted largely of staring at my shadow and kicking up dust and watching it drift past. My mind couldn’t wrap around the game; it was not game-shaped. Shadows and dust, on the other hand, were a perfect fit.

    I spent those Saturdays in right field, stunned into uselessness by the bare fact of the world, by existence.

    I am no longer a child, and the game has changed from baseball to ladder-climbing (among other things). But my inability to play the game remains. Yes, I have worked hard and have a number of accomplishments under my belt. You won’t find me minimizing those accomplishments or the saints whose love and dedication made them possible. I have been freely given the material, emotional, educational, and spiritual resources—along with multiple opportunities—to organize my life into a clearly-marked, stable, one-way career. But the pieces never fit. My mind can’t wrap around that game and I’ve given up trying to play.

    I again blame existence, which is oddly persistent. My admiration for existence has led me from physics to theology to writing—what else is there?—and still I spend my life wondering. I feel as useless as an outfielder in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game with three men on and two men out, wondering at shadows, lost in the interplay of light and dust.

    It really is something, existence.

    If it sounds odd to say such a thing it might be because existence is rarely acknowledged. It is rarely acknowledged because it is rarely sensed. Usually we need art to become aware of the surprising fact of the world, or music might do it, or science, or sustained religious practice, or great violence, or great loss, or great joy. Mostly we wander around “sunk into everydayness,” as Walker Percy put it, unaware of existence.

    This is probably OK. Existence can be paralyzing. Awareness of it, I mean. We can’t all walk around stupefied like Merton on the corner in Louisville, blinded by passersby shining like the sun. Nothing would get done.

    Ever since dad died last year existence has become harder than ever for me to overlook (and yes, it can be tough to get things done, but I show up as best I can). I can’t stop imagining the woods, the creek, the trees, the creatures, the sky; or walking through the actual woods, along the actual creek, under the trees, among the creatures, beneath the sky.

    The other day I was at the South Fork of Peachtree Creek and a saw a great crested flycatcher for the first time. I heard it before I saw it, a sharp buzzy wheep. It was so sudden and so loud it scared me still. I turned in the direction of the sound, toward a stand of gnarled boxelder. Waited, stared, focused on nothing, poised for motion or sound. And wheep there it was, in plain view and full sunlight, 15 feet away, lemon and gray and greatly crested. I didn’t know what I was looking at until I got home and did some research. It’s an impressive bird, yes, but it might have been a dodo for the lift it gave me.

    Existence, fully gratuitous and unasked-for, to the rescue (again). I can’t get past it—I tell you, there’s something holy out there.

    As for Tyson? He’s a super famous science guy and he’s got a line to toe when it comes to God. I get that too. But if he were to read this I bet he’d know exactly what I’m talking about.

    Comment Pages

    There are 3 Comments to "I am impressed with existence lately"

    • Mark Taylor says:

      “stunned into uselessness by the bare fact of the world, by existence”
      Such a gorgeous line. Thank you for it.


    • Louis Howe says:

      Yes, great crested flycatchers are wonderful. Just to complete (square?) the circle, I once knew a softball team named the Flycatchers; the great crested in color on the backs of their uniforms.



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