I originally wrote this on Friday, August 9, but I wanted some time to pass before I published it. It rambles a bit, but I promise, this is music related.
Following David Berman’s death and some personal events, I have been reflective about loss, grief, and death.
This time of reflection coincides with a time I am actively journaling (for the first time in years) with meditations from philosophers and practitioners of Stoicism serving as my guide. Maybe older white men are not contemporary society’s version of wisdom or a friend at this time, but I have found a great amount of general wisdom from the Stoics. The best answer to our problems is often the most simple. The tricky part of Stoicism for many (myself included) is accepting our past and exerting some control on our lizard brain.
Thankfully, life presents opportunities every day to practice Stoicism, and if you are lost along the way, there is no shortage of wisdom from Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca (my favorite), and many other philosophers. I have found that our problems are not as unique as we would like to think sometimes. We are never truly alone in an experience.
As I have embraced Stoicism and changes in my life over the past few weeks, I still struggle with feelings that are traditionally viewed as negative or hyperbolic feelings. The point of Stoicism is not about deception or avoidance of these feelings. Instead it is about adjusting ones perspective to whatever keeps us calmest and most ready for the task at hand. I, by no means, have mastered this, but Stoic meditations provide an anchor to tie ourselves to when issues present themselves. I expect this to be a lifelong learning process where perfection is not the goal.
Stoics believed in compatibilism (or “soft determinism”): free will and determinism are mutually compatible and that it is possible to believe in both without being logically inconsistent. People will always choose what they want– and what they want is determined by (and consistent with) their moral nature. This excerpt from Theopedia makes the idea a bit more digestible:
“Man freely makes choices, but those choices are determined by the condition of his heart and mind (i.e. his moral nature). [Whereas libertarian] free will maintains that for any choice made, one could always equally have chosen otherwise, or not chosen at all.”
Personally, I have found more reason to pursue and choose goodness and gentleness since I have adopted a compatibilist belief system. When we choose goodness, we turn our problems from a wasp to a butterfly: still present and flitting about but much lighter and less threatening.
To pursue goodness and gentleness, we must also embrace a key feature of stoicism: the impermanence of life.
This morning, as I was exiting my building and feeling annoyed that I had put my shirt on backwards, I noticed some white fluff from the corner of my eye. When I turned my head, I saw a gorgeous grayish-purple, plump pigeon that appeared to be resting peacefully on the ground. I was most immediately worried that it was hurt and suffering, but then I saw it was surrounded by flies and was most certainly dead. I bent over at the waist and looked at the pigeon for a long time. I frequently took this pose when I found dead animals, mainly fish and squirrels, on which I did my fair share of poking with a stick as a grotesque childhood biological/scientific exercise.
Before I fully convince you that I am a serial killer, I do not bear any animal’s suffering well. Although I have made some hard decisions about animals, it was not something I took or take lightly and some horrific events has haunted me at times. So when I looked down upon this bird, I felt very sad for it.
I was also very worried that this bird was some sort of bad omen:
- Shirt on backwards and wearing shrunken pants ✔️
- Personal loss still lingering ✔️
- Recent suicide by a beloved and accessible artist ✔️
- Dead pigeon ✔️
Yep. All signs check out, and I fully expected some ominous storm clouds to roll in and have someone one spill coffee all over me on the train. However, as Stoicism has taught me anything it is that 1) there is no point in fearing the future and 2) imagine the worst scenario and how you will handle it, and you will be less anxious.
I was really sad about this little guy. Did he die alone? Did he die because he hit a window? Did he suffer much? These were similar questions I wonder about David Berman (minus the hitting a window part– sorry D.B., but I think you would have thought that was funny). Ultimately, Stoicism tells us we must make a similar conclusion: we must not complain about what is taken away but be thankful for what we have been given.
As Seneca put it,
“Who maintains that it is not a heavy blow? But [death] is part of being human.”
The inevitability of death is one of the greatest truths and equalizers for both humans and every living thing. While it appears grand, it is happening all the time, and we should prepare for it and welcome it like meeting someone we feel as if we’ve known for years. The third most important (not in order of importance) lesson I have learned from Stoicism is while you do not necessarily give into Death, do not live in fear of death as it was meant to happen all along.
Yes, friends, we are all meant to die, and that is really the most okay thing in the world.
Although death is imminent, we must still celebrate those individuals who passed. Otherwise, it might have all been for nothing. So as I looked at this pigeon and felt grief, I felt grateful to be alive now, and grateful that this pigeon was resting now, like I will one day rest too. Like David Berman rests after giving us so much joy, comfort, and inspiration (and laughs). Like our troubles rest when we let them go and feel love for those who have hurt us rather than seeking vengeance upon them or hurting ourselves over and over again with grudges and hatred.
When I made it to the train, I chuckled to myself thinking about how pointless it has been to worry that my pigeon friend served as a sign. I felt a sense of peace after remembering the things I have learned recently.
And I felt even more grateful still, when this beautiful orchestral version of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s “One with Birds”, a song I had never heard before, played at random on my Spotify.
The cover is a new side project of BPB (William Oldham, a frequent collaborator and partner of David Berman), The National’s Bryce Dessner, and contemporary classical ensemble Eighth Blackbird. “One with Birds” is originally a BPB song, but I prefer this version as it was very much needed today.
The delicate music pulled at my heart a little, but it made me feel so incredibly grateful. Although the lyrics are a bit up for interpretation (I have read one interpretation that the song is about an affair or arguing couple), the title alone made me feel a one-ness with my pigeon friend…and David Berman by extension. One line in particular took my breath away:
“Tweet with me /
And widely spread /
Your olive wings /
Embrace my head /
Fly with me /
Til we are dead.”
Although we are human, let us embrace our impermanence and fly.