June 2008 - Vol. 20

Birdman at Trafalgar Square - London, by Don Schwager 
Pigeons, Chance, and the Purpose of Life

Defining and shaping one’s purpose in life is not an easy task 
(especially if you happen to be a post-graduate cynic)

by Sid O'Neil

Feeling strangely adrift 
The problem with pigeons is at heart an ideological one. The life of a pigeon is short and inglorious and undignified. A strict adherence to the threefold pillars of life in the animal kingdom (eat, sleep and procreate) is enough for most beasts, who often inadvertently attain a higher status in service of Man. Cows are delicious when roasted. A donkey will pull a cart for little more than the occasional carrot. Even foxes do their bit to keep the rabbit population under control. But you cannot harness a pigeon, and frankly they taste awful. The pigeon has a bad rep, because the spreading of disease is prominent in their extremely limited skill-set. This is why they are called “rats on wings”. The glassy-eyed vicious ignorance that personifies them does little for their reputation, and the probable resultant low self-esteem is possibly their largest character flaw. Surely, people feed pigeons, but generally more from a sort of reluctant pity than anything else. The pigeon ideology, therefore, is tarnished irreparably by their social and functional disadvantages. What you do, after all, is generally what defines you to the world.

These thoughts were jogging through the gaping plateau that I call my mind as I sat in the park in the late-spring sunshine this morning. I handed in my last paper for University a few days ago, and ever since then I had been feeling strangely adrift. Curse University as one might, the one thing it does provide is a sense of purpose, however vague. That last paper signaled the “end of an era”. Suddenly the rest of my life stretches in front of me, like an unfurled roll of wallpaper – blank wallpaper. I stand with a crayon, and the time has come to make the first marks on the paper, for good or ill.

One’s Philosophy of Life is a long-term purpose
At this time of cosmic introspection I find my thoughts often drawn to a piece of wisdom that my father laid on me a good many years ago. My father happens to be, without question, the wisest man I know, and so it was exceedingly fortunate that he ended up playing such a big part in my life. The gist of the thing was: one of the things that defines a man is his Philosophy of Life. There are many other things that make a man a man, some more esoteric than others, but it seems to me that this particular one is especially important, be you man or woman. I did not understand what he meant, at the time, and I am not sure that I do now, entirely. “Philosophy of Life” is one of those phrases, like “intellectual”, or “politically correct” that is hard to pin down exactly.

Whereas university (and the successful completion of your course) is a particular kind of short-term purpose, perhaps it is that one’s Philosophy of Life is a long-term purpose, in the sense that a purpose moves one to action, and dictates one’s reaction to external stimuli. This is a difficult concept to grasp, at first, but that suits the vague nature of the problem.

A definite white-knuckled challenge
I had the misfortune to be born both a cynic and an optimist. This has led to a huge amount of grief and misunderstanding and nasty scenes over the years. It is an awfully hard role to play with any kind of satisfaction. The temptation is to avoid serious people and conversation and go with the prevailing winds – but this has never been something I’ve been able to do. If not for my parents, I would be the most disgusting kind of degenerate. But they had the good fortune to discover Jesus, and... well, the rest is history. Suffice it to say that I have always believed in God, and I have never quite managed to get my upbringing out of my system. Which is, I suppose, the point of an upbringing.

So it is that, at the dawn of a new period in my life, I am starting to discover, to my surprise, that a Philosophy of Life has been with me for a long while. I have realised that, at the root of it all, my purpose is to get closer to God. A few years ago, when I was a good deal less troubled by self-analysis and deep ponderings, it was the easiest thing in the world to give my life to God. I did not have much of a life to give, to be fair, and so the optimist within gleefully placed the entire future in his hands. I never understood, in those days, when people claimed it was difficult to give their lives to him. Nowadays – nowadays it scares me to death. A future is a pretty momentous and weighty thing to toss around, and to hand it off to someone else is a definite white-knuckled challenge. Nevertheless, it is a simple truth that there are no better hands to hold it. My parents knew this years before I was born, and thank God for that.

Destiny and free will
Which brings us again, inevitably, to pigeons. Pigeons are born without any kind of chance. Their destiny is pre-ordained. The truly astonishingly universe-shattering thing about being a human being is that we have Free Will. We are not condemned to a life of snatching at filthy crumbs in municipal parks, losing the occasional eye to meaningless brawls with other pigeons. And the weird paradox in this Free Will business is that the most freedom we can have is by giving up our lives to God. It is unexplainable and counterintuitive. Despite my upbringing, at any moment I can choose to reject God. Yet despite the horrendously frightening wrench that it takes to give my life to him, I continue to do so – because of the rare moments of extreme joy that it brings, but most of all because this is my Philosophy of Life, and I know without any doubt that it is completely right.

This is a weird time. Every day is strange to me, and there is little about my life that does not seem subject to sudden shifts and upheavals. There are big decisions to be made – and now there is no one else to make them. The world is basically rotten, and it is a hard place to shape a life. Despite this, the optimist is on top. I will not be a pigeon, however attractive the bread crumbs might seem at times. I don’t know what I will be – but I have high hopes, and my God deals in legends and fulfilled dreams. Against my nature, I can’t shake the feeling that it might just turn out OK in the end.
Sid O'Neill has just graduated from Strathclyde University in Scotland. In recent years he has been actively involved in Community of the Risen Christ in Glasgow and its outreach to university age people.

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