When Words Don’t Work

Last summer I was walking my usual path around the lake on my lunch break when I heard a bird squawking frantically in the branches of a tree. I tiptoed slowly through the brush to see what was going on. On the ground beneath the tree, I spotted the scales of a snake winding through the leaves, and then saw the soft down feathers of a baby bird peeking out of its jaws.

I stood there frozen and silent.

I knew what I would have done, if I were the same person I was before. I would have recoiled, been angry and disgusted, felt helpless and hopeless. I would have found a stick, tried to scare the snake away. If the baby were still alive I would have been too terrified of its injury and pain to touch it with my bare hands or look at it closely. I would have fearfully scooped it in my bag, and driven in terror to the wildlife recovery center twenty minutes away. I would have tearfully recounted the story of a helpless nightmare and an innocent victim over and over in my mind. That terror and injustice would have become a part of me. I would have never gone back to the lake.

But I’m not the person I was before.

I stood in silence with the snake at my feet and watched myself write a story of victimhood and injustice about this day, and I knew it wasn’t true, and I let it go.

I looked again.

And my mind started to write a story about the cold and unforgiving fairness of nature, and I knew it wasn’t true, and I let it go.

I stood in the moment as it was. I stood in the midst of life and death and without value it wasn’t tragic or frightening or cruel. I stood there for a long time feeling those moments and for the first time, clearly understanding the difference between experience and imagination and truth and judgment.¬†Any story about this moment would have been a lie. I can only say that a snake was eating a bird, and even that is misleading.

That former me would have felt the same panic and desperation about saving an insect from a bird, saving a snake from a cat. But who am I to save a bird and risk an insect? Who am I to save a bird and starve a snake?

I am the insect, the bird, the snake, the cat. When a victim exists, it’s me. When there’s a perpetrator, it’s me.

Without the story, there’s no victim. There’s no injustice. Without the story both the bird and snake are innocent. No one needs saving. Each life and each moment is exactly perfect in all measures.

There’s only a bird and snake. I’ll let the bird be a bird. I’ll let the snake be a snake. Because I’ve never actually known a bird. I’ve never met a snake. I know only what I’ve always believed about birds and snakes, and the more time that passes and the more I question, I realize I actually know nothing. I can’t be the judge. Judgment was never necessary.

I didn’t speak a word of that day for a long time, but I’ve often thought of it. I see the images of the memory appear in my mind. I watch myself react to them, and again and again I realized that there is no story to tell. No string of words can properly symbolize the experience of those moments. No words are sufficient to explain what happened there, and what did not happen, and why and why not.

Language so often isn’t enough. Words can never be truth. Everything I say is a lie. It’s more true to say nothing. There’s freedom in knowing that the most carefully articulated story still misses the mark. I can stop writing the stories of my life and start actually living the moments of it. It’s a different world when I stop narrating the world and just watch it as it is.

I experienced those moments that life had placed in my path without a story, and it was nothing. Without a story of value or moral or judgment, it just was. I couldn’t say it was wrong or right or fair or not. And I saw the insanity of trying to.

Birds are. Snakes are. There’s nothing true left to say. No judgment can be made, and there’s no reason to try. An explanation only limits it, dumbs it down, waters it down, devalues it. I gain nothing from bending and whittling reality into a story that will fit my language and my mind. What is presupposes all of that.

What happened that day is more than what I can say about it, and also less. Words aren’t enough, and sometimes they’re too much.

And even this is a lie.

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