I walk regularly along rural roads. It’s mostly just nature, the road and me. Very slow going, except for the occasional passing car — this four ton machine whizzing past me, the driver’s part requiring only a slight press of the foot against the accelerator.

From a walking point of view, I am more aware how alien car speed is to our deeper human nature, which for 200 thousand years, to get from point A to point B, knew only walking and running, or at best horse power. Of course, I drive too, and this little piece of awareness has resulted in my driving more slowly than most people. It’s easier on my inherited nervous system.

Plus, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that “getting there” is generally just as rich as “being there.” But only if I’m not in a hurry. A lot is going on inside me inside a car if I’m driving slowly enough to tune it in. The scenery I’m  passing though. The insights that pop into my head. The memories, feelings that come up, seemingly out of nowhere, sometimes enhanced by what I’m playing on the disk player.

Even boredom is interesting if I examine it. Just imagine — I came here from seemingly nowhere; in a short time I’ll return back to seemingly nowhere; at present I have this feeling heart, this thinking brain, both of which soon will be part of a small pile of ashes.

How astonishing: to be living temporary within a pulsating miracle and at the same time to be bored. To frame boredom thusly is to begin to transform it.

Another good thing about driving ten miles an hour more slowly than other people is that until yesterday it had been many years since I hit a bird, or any animal — a long enough time that I found myself sometimes reflecting on that fact. Especially when I was driving and seeing all the dead animals strewn along the road, these corpses, this casual carnage, representing one more piece of evidence of the modern human race out of sync with nature. Out of sync with itself. Maybe beyond redemption.

On occasion I have reflected, “what if some of these animals dead along the road were human animals?” Of course no one would be indifferent to that.

Not yet. But that day could arrive. Human life, as all life, does seem to be becoming cheaper and cheaper. In grossly overpopulated and poverty infested cities like Calcutta, I understand that to see a human corpse on the side of the road is no big deal. One quickly passes by. Someone else will take care of it. The same as, on occasion, a state employee will come along in a state truck and haul away the animal corpses. At least the larger ones.

I remember back to my youth on the farm, my father hitting a deer. Stopping the car. Going back and clubbing it to death — as an act of mercy — with a crowbar. Then stuffing it into the trunk, taking it home for the meat. I remember my mother hitting a neighbor’s chicken. Stopping the car. Knocking on Theresa’s door to tell her about it. Theresa coming out with a pail in her hands, Mom helping her gather up the remains.

No need to be sentimental. I’m sure that dead chicken found its way into the stew for that evening’s dinner. There’s a natural savagery to life. My dad would have shot that same deer with his twelve gauge, perhaps, the next fall, if he hadn’t first hit him with the car. That chicken was destined to be eaten sooner or later. I was a regular witness to the butchery on the farm, saw the steers and pigs slaughtered, the chicken’s heads cut off. By age nine, I had my personal four-ten shotgun, hunted deer, rabbits and pheasants. Unless we’re vegetarians, killing is how we go on living.

Still, what a difference between that 1950’s farmstead way of killing, and the industrialized, assembly-line slaughter-houses of today; between the road-kill of those above mentioned incidences from my youth, and the road-kill now. I got an early taste of that difference when I was taking Driver’s Ed class in suburban Detroit (my folks left the farm when I was in my teens), the instructor saying that it’s best not to swerve if an animal appears in front of your car, as swerving is a common cause of accidents.

I remember thinking at the time, what would it say about a person to make no attempt at all to avoid hitting a living thing.

In the case of the bird — the sparrow I hit yesterday — I had no chance to swerve. He was suddenly there, in my windshield, and, pop, he was gone.

Killing an animal is never a serene experience. To add another disturbing dimension, at the moment of impact I was playing a black gospel version of the Lord’s Prayer on my car disk player, singing along with it, “For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, the Glory, forever,” elongating that word “forever” and then, pop, the bird.

To kill a bird while I was singing the Lord’s Prayer made it something more. This is the same Lord, after all, who said God’s eye is on the sparrow. I’m one to ponder such coincidences. Carl Jung called them synchronicities — the simultaneous occurrence of psychic and physical events which seem not to be linked in a causal way.

I knew rather quickly what this synchronicity was addressing. I go back and forth between faith and reason, in terms of whether or not there’s a caring God watching over life. Lately I’ve been leaning in the direction of faith; in the direction of yes, we live in a friendly universe. Of course that’s what I want to think (who doesn’t?), though my reason still presses me with how this can be, with all the suffering going on, people starving to death, being tortured, dying by the thousands in wars, or by accident, as in car wrecks, or more slowly, in sickness often dying by inches, as did my mother and sister, millions of heartfelt prayers either unheard or unfavorably unanswered.

In my childhood, such conundrums were explained away in terms of “we’ll understand it better by and by.” “By and by” referred to some later time and condition when we will see beyond reason and comprehend life’s sometimes mercilessness in a new way.  Will see it as only the appearance of mercilessness. Will see suffering, perhaps, even as a necessary agent of our faith’s development.

And true, it has been suffering, and only suffering, that has ever brought me to my knees. When I’m not suffering I tend towards agnosticism, or downright atheism. Thus suffering could be seen as God’s “hard love,” I suppose — what it takes before I can cry out, earnestly, “God help me!” What it takes to break me out of the deceit of my self-sufficiency.

This battle has gone on in me practically all my life. When I’m feeling good, I tend towards skepticism. When I’m worried, fearful, in pain, I lean toward a God who cares about what I’m going through. That’s why I had the “Lord’s Prayer” playing at the time of the “accident.” I was going through a fearful stretch.

No need to say what precipitated it now, because my point is that I’m two people inside. Sometimes I’m the frightened child saying “I’ll understand it better by and by,” and sometimes, when it looks like all is well, I’m the skeptic who tells me that a personal, caring God is wishful thinking. Infantile.

But as I get older, I’m discovering that my skeptic side has a skeptic side. I can’t help but notice that the days I begin with heartfelt meditation and prayer (not simply going through the motions of such) go noticeably better than the days I don’t.

And yet, indeed, how shallow,  how unbecoming, to pray with even a sniff of an underlying motive to get some reward.  Now and then a person’s mind needs a good slap in the face.

Sorry, God’s sparrow, that it cost you your life.


  1. Mireya

    Excellent essay. Like the interaction you have at all time with nature. Any event can become a profound and deep experience.

  2. Matt C

    Of all the essays you write, these–where you find the existential in the accidental–are my favorite. I hesitate to say ‘accidental,’ you may prefer a lexicon of synchronicity, but I am reminded of Sartre’s injunction that Man interprets his symbols, that he is ‘condemned’ to determine meaning. This isn’t to quibble your turn to Jung, but to celebrate your decision, the interpretations you bring into the world. Thanks to it, killing a sparrow becomes a meditation on the modern battle between faith and reason.

    Of all the things I’ve learned from you over the years, the attention to detail stands out the most. It is what I most routinely practice in my own life. Simply not letting the moment pass in lethargy (of course, I am very guilty of doing this on a daily basis) is hard work–I’ll never forget what you said about the opening lines of “Song of Myself” when Walt is working hard at being ‘lazy’. Though I am far from God, I admire that you haven’t turned your back on the Lord in world grows increasingly hedonistic and void. That takes guts.

  3. Matt C

    Of all the essays you write, these–finding the existential in accidental–are my favorite. I hesitate to say ‘accidental,’ knowing you might prefer a lexicon of synchronicity, of purpose, but I am reminded of Sartre’s injunction that Man interprets his symbols, that we are ‘condemned’ to chose meaning. This isn’t to quibble, just to celebrate how interrelated are all actions, as Charley eloquently put. Killing a sparrow becomes a reflection on the soul, the modern battle between spirituality and reason. In my life, this focus on detail–letting no drop of precious life slip by out of lethargy, or to recognize and examine that lethargy–has been one of your lasting impacts. Though I am far from God, I admire that you don’t turn your back on the Lord as the world becomes increasingly hedonistic and void. That takes guts.

    1. (Post author)

      So great to have your voice in the mix here, Matt. It’s like you and Charley and I sitting around a morning coffee talking about things. In my sense of things, quite thrilling. That seems a big word, but as I groped for a better one, nothing came.

  4. Charles Sullivan

    One of the qualities I particularly like in Jim Ralston’s monthly blog is that he finds life lessons in ordinary experience, in things and events that are easily overlooked. In essence, he perceives the universal in the singular, the macro reflected in the micro, much like seeing the world reflected in a drop of rain water sliding down a leaf after a spring shower. The more attentive an observer is, the more there is to be seen. Truths often have to be teased out with finesse.

    The moments that comprise our lives are only rarely grandiose. It requires skill to find nutriment in the ordinary, but that is where we find the most life. When we look closely, we discover that there are but few ordinary moments. Gems are hidden away in plain sight, if only we slow down and take the time to look and interpret what is there. This is what I call mindfulness, and that is precisely what I find reflected in these short essays. Even the fall of a sparrow glistens with insights. Nothing is in vain.

    1. (Post author)

      Thank you, Charley. After your comments I reread my own blog through your eyes and it helps me see what I’ve written. And, in the case of your comments, helps me appreciate what I’ve written. And to answer a question I’ve been asking myself lately: why write at all in this world growing crazier and crazier by leaps and bounds. Your response points me to the answer to that question.


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