Big black bird


“The dream crossed twilight between birth and dying” – TS Eliot

I did this drawing back in 2011. Big black bird eats everything, I called it.

Was I just in a particularly grim mood, or was this image, drawn quickly – as if sketched with some strange vision in mind – a sort of prayer for those pursued by this big black bird?

This afternoon I heard of another suicide. The friend of a work colleague hanged himself yesterday. Age 28. His life a short, dream-crossed twilight.

It’s a wretched thing to write about.

A taboo:

everyone has a view:

a bone to pick,

a position to defend,

a scripture to quote,

a stone to throw.

Many a religious person calls it a sin leading to eternal damnation; many regard it as an act of cowardice. I’m not sure what I find more disconcerting: the tragedy of suicide or the tragedy of the human heart without tenderness. 

A suicide note may be the only insight we have by way of clarification: a page torn from a dream. 

Easy to point fingers at those who choose to get off the train earlier than the rest: I have come to the conclusion that many condemn suicide as a way of stamping down on their own big black bird. Keep stamping down, unless it rises into the air. There is no bird. There is no darkening landscape.

[How did the Pharisees see things? “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector”.]

Or like this suicide, perhaps.

I have no idea why I did this doodle of a lone figure in a landscape, beneath a heavy sky that is at once a storm and massive bird of prey. And why I scrawled the strange text below. But tonight, it feels as if a giant bird has eaten another life, and there is neither rhyme nor reason for it. 

Was the young man sad, lost, in despair? Was this an act of rebellion against a life he disavowed?

Was my doodle a sort of subconscious, apotropaic gesture? (Apotropaic – “to ward off evil”. The ancient Greeks made offerings to the ‘averting gods’ (Ἀποτρόπαιοι θεοί: Apotropaioi Theoi), chthonic deities who grant safety and deflect evil.)

Maybe I just want God to protect the vulnerable, to fend off the big black bird which threatens us. My doodle a sort of talisman.

But perhaps this is all foolishness. God never saw my little sketch, tucked into the back of an unseen journal

A doodle: a prayer, an offering to the Apotropaioi Theoi.

Or a Tibetan, or Nepalese prayer flag: in the west we think of prayer in terms of words spoken. The prayer flag has a different purpose: Buddhists place these flags outside their homes and on mountains for the wind to catch the blessings up into the air and distribute compassion, prosperity and courage far and wide. It is considered auspicious for the flags to become threadbare and fade as the wind erodes the blessings, symbols and mantras.

Perhaps my doodle was a little like a prayer flag.

Tonight I feel angry that the young man took his life. I say angry – not judgemental. “No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide”, wrote Cesare Pavese.

 Did no one see the young man running alone, as storm clouds closed in around him?

What sort of a world is this, where the young no longer want to live? This death is not so much a judgement on the victim, as a judgement upon the world in which he found it impossible to live.

Is that huge devouring creature real, or is it simply an illusion, a play of light on tumultuous clouds, the way the little figure perceives the heavy weather?

Perhaps our stick man just can’t see the beauty in the tumbling sky. Perhaps, consumed by fear, he sees only what he imagines to be there.

There is a verse in the Gospel of Saint Luke that says, “…men’s hearts shall fail them for fear and for looking after those things which shall come on the world…” The Greek here is ἀποψυχόντων: literally, it means dying (from fear and expectation). I am deliberately conflating eschatology with intimate tragedy. But somehow the one seems to penetrate the other. I cannot help but ask, where is God in all of this? Where are the angels, the emissaries of light? 

I want to build a shelter in that landscape, gather sticks for the little stick figure to hide. Like the Good Samaritan. Is the stick man calling for help, waving his arms in distress? Why is no one listening? Who will comfort and protect him?

[I recall the photojournalist Kevin Carter’s distressing photograph of a starving child: “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist” he wrote, before taking his life. He could not live without joy.]

Where are the angels to show our stick figures that all us not lost?

The bird swept down yesterday, and suddenly, he was gone.


References:

Prayer at the Funeral of Someone Who Committed Suicide, by Rabbi Joseph Meszler Rabbi, Temple Sinai, Sharon, MA; Author, Witnesses to the One: the Spiritual History of the Sh’ma (Jewish Lights):

http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/3631416

…….

…….
 
 

“Suicide usually isn’t discussed, especially in the church. While it is a subject whispered behind cupped hands or alluded to in the form of a prayer request, suicide is rarely confronted openly.

One of the greatest deterrents to meeting suicide head-on is the centuries-old proliferation of myths and misunderstandings about the subject. Doesn’t mentioning suicide to a depressed person plant the idea in his mind and encourage rather than deter? Isn’t a suicide death a sure ticket to hell? Don’t surviving family members feel better if no one mentions the manner in which their loved one died? The answer to all these questions is “no.

…..

See:

Argument s for antinatalism: David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.

See also an obscure work: “Excerpts from A Philosophical Dissertation Upon Death” by Count Alberto Radicati Di Passerano ( an 18th-century historian, philosopher and free-thinker arrested for his views).

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101067678845;view=1up;seq=11;skin=mobile

…..

Pause for thought:

South Africa has the eighth highest suicide rate in the world. In 2016 there were over a million suicides recorded globally.  According to WHO, a suicide occurs every 40 seconds and an attempt is made every 3 seconds. In South Africa, the suicide rate for children aged 10-14 years old has more than doubled over the last fifteen years.

 

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