This past weekend, the area I live in was hit pummeled with a snowstorm. The flakes were big, wet, and heavy, and quickly covered the ground and streets around my home. I was inside, warm and comfortable, and watching the snow piling up when I heard something that startled me out of my relaxed state. Outside, in the midst of this freezing, snowy day, I could hear a bird singing. I sat and listened for a moment before going to investigate. I looked out and sure enough, a bird sat on a tree outside of my home, singing. Snowflakes covered the branch he sat on and were beginning to cover his feathers. I imagined that he would soon retreat to a safer and covered location quickly but I was enchanted by this little being for the moment he was there.
The bird song startled me because it was so unexpected. Even though I know that spring is on its way, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a bird sing in a snowstorm. I don’t know the cognitive abilities of a bird, but I imagine that he is incapable of understanding that the storm was temporary and would provide the necessary water for the birds’ springtime existence. I imagine that, from a bird’s perspective, the snow coming down looks more like a death sentence and less like the promise of a new day. It’s a real possibility that the little bird froze this weekend as the temperatures dipped into the low teens overnight, but yet, while the sun was shining, he opened his mouth and sang.
The bird reminded me of one of my favorite aspects of the existential worldview; the ability to hold in our awareness the polarities of living. We carry within us the seeds of life as well as the inevitable death we will all face. We have within us capacity to create and to destroy and the freedom to decide which path we will take. Schneider and Krug (2010) call this ability “to experience the fullness of their lives-their deepest dreads as well as most dazzling desires” the cultivation of awe. Rubin (2002) defines it as “tragic optimism,” that is the recognition of “inevitable suffering and death” that “mobilizes the individual’s inner resources of courage and creativity as they confront loss, chaos and the mystery of existence” (p. 2).
Unlike the bird, humans have the ability to consciously choose to acknowledge these realities of living and to choose how to live in light of those realities. We can complain about the snow or recognize it for its purpose in bringing the beautiful flowers of spring. We can retreat to a safe and isolated place in our minds for fear of being hurt, disappointed, or heartbroken, or we can acknowledge that those experiences are part of the price we pay to be human. We can choose to stay in our comfort zone or we can push our own boundaries and expand our existence. I suppose we can all take a lesson from a bird—even when we don’t know what tomorrow holds, we can choose to sing in the snowstorm.
Schneider, K. & Krug, O. (2010). Existential-humanistic therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Rubin, S. (2002). The dynamism of resolute being: The experience of an existential-humanistic worldview: a heuristic investigation. [Dissertation]. Retrieved from Proquest (3070143).
— Lisa Vallejos