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Sunday – I went running this morning in the clear cold air. I came upon a flock of migrating black birds – hundreds, maybe more than a thousand of them. They seemed to be on every branch of every tree. Some were on the road, and a guy had to blow his horn to clear a way to his driveway. The sound of all those birds took me back over thirty years to the first time I came upon such a group. I was walking in the woods to Lake Matoaka to take pictures. I was checking my camera as I walked and suddenly realized I was surrounded by an incredibly loud noise. “What IS that?” I thought. I looked up and was surrounded by birds everywhere. So of course I immediately thought of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” It was like being swallowed up by a great big living, vibrating-with-sound-and-movement organism. I walked along more slowly and mindfully and just watched in amazement. I remember that day there were at least two or three species each in their vast group. This morning I just smiled at all the racket and hoped nobody rained on me as they flew over and I ran in their shadows. I wondered what it was like in the days when passenger pigeons were still alive and their flocks would block out the sun for days because their numbers were so large as they crossed the sky. And now there are none, thanks to people. A few moments later a shot rang out somewhere down across one of the ravines. The woods immediately became silent. Within a few moments, the bells of a church over in Toano started to ring through the woods in the direction from where the birds originally came. I kept going with the only sounds that of a few local birds that live here year around, and the sound of the bells. A few seconds the only sounds were just a couple of crows and sparrows and my footsteps. I got back to the house and listened intently and maybe about a half mile or so across the ravine, I could hear the cacophony of birds again, recovered, back in the groove, calling out to each other and the world, carrying on their journey. My run became a meditation of yin and yang.

Tuesday – Another running morning this time in the cold damp gray overcast of a day between winter storms. I passed by a man unloading his pickup of his hunting gear. About a mile later I passed a woman in her front yard smiling with joy and wonder at a small deer in her front yard. She was holding her hand out to the deer trying to get him to come to her. I thought of a time years ago at Bryce Canyon as I walked along with a young summer ranger intern. He was studying ecology in graduate school. Every time we came upon one of the little ground squirrels that frequent the trails, he would stomp his foot and scare them away. “You don’t want to habituate them to people,” he said. The deer today was already pretty habituated, and getting more so. Every action we take is linked to everything, and our intentions don’t always play out in a way we hope for or even think about. A gesture of felt kindness and wonder may have consequences we are not mindful of – like making a deer more vulnerable as prey.  You really can look into any action, or even a bowl of rice, and see that we are connected to everything in the infinity of time and space. Every why has a why. I kept running. A mile or so later I was in the part of the neighborhood bordering on deep woods. A single shot rang out. I just kept running.

The end of the year is near on the Gregorian calendar.  There are other calendars – Chinese, Jewish, Muslim, and others including some structured so that dates fall on the same day of the week every year. But, like the metric system, our culture for the most part ignores the way others measure time.  Theoretical physics says that time should be able to go backwards as well as forwards and is not linear. But we experience time linearly and we look for causes from the past and long for or dread the future, and often miss the moment we are in. We resolve, especially at this time of year, to change.

Often people want to know the “why” of problems they have, or of behaviors. They feel they must know the why before they can change, or to make the change permanent. I sometimes tell the story of a research psychologist I once worked for. He swore he would never do clinical work because of an experience he had in rotation during his doctoral program. The rotation included a clinical track. He had a client who was afraid of plants. He tried the standard exposure therapy but got nowhere.  Eventually she came up with a story of being frightened as a child in the presence of a plant. He had no idea if the story was true, but it worked. Too inexact for him. He went into research.

But how exact is research?  Does the why or the cause matter? There is an article in Wired well worth reading at  It is called “Trial and Error: Why Science Is Failing Us” by Jonah Lehrer.  He looks at the story of the cholesterol drug torcetrapib and how what should have easily worked failed miserably. Causes are shortcuts, are stories, that we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. We are wired to try to make sense of the world, and we do this with stories.  What we forget is that they are stories and we sometimes make them unquestionable truths.  They matter, but in the end, they are our constructs. Statistical analysis in research can help, but too often the questions are asked in ways that affect outcomes, or the wrong tests are chosen or funding affects outcomes. At best, we can predict with probability.

Jonah writes:

“David Hume referred to causality as “the cement of the universe.” He was being ironic, since he knew that this so-called cement was a hallucination, a tale we tell ourselves to make sense of events and observations. No matter how precisely we knew a given system, Hume realized, its underlying causes would always remain mysterious, shadowed by error bars and uncertainty.”

One problem with a cause is that there is always a cause for the cause – an infinite regression of “why.” Often we have difficulty with randomness and ambiguity and shades of gray. But things happen. One of the interesting things about quantum mechanics is that subatomic particles can disappear and reappear somewhere else for no apparent reason.  We may long for the certainty of predictable waves in the flow of life, but to live, we need to be able to surf. To swim against what we think should be the tide is to wear ourselves out and risk drowning. And realize that nothing is permanent.

Jonah concludes:

“… (W)e must never forget that our causal beliefs are defined by their limitations. For too long, we’ve pretended that the old problem of causality can be cured by our shiny new knowledge. If only we devote more resources to research or dissect the system at a more fundamental level or search for ever more subtle correlations, we can discover how it all works. But a cause is not a fact, and it never will be; the things we can see will always be bracketed by what we cannot. And this is why, even when we know everything about everything, we’ll still be telling stories about why it happened. It’s mystery all the way down.”

What we can do is flow with the mystery in the moment we have and the story we tell. And a new year can start any time we choose in our lives. Calendars are constructs for marking time. Lives are for living.

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