The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We’ll never solve our many crises without this one ingredient

A cardinal perches on a branch at D.C.'s Battery Kemble Park in 2018. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
5 min

There’s a cardinal outside my kitchen window, and I’m not sure how to feel about it.

From time to time, I read or hear reports that the world’s birds are in crisis. More than half of all North American species are in decline, according to a study published by a group of the United States’ and Canada’s eminent avian scientists. I was taught that Shakespeare had in mind the vandalized churches of Europe’s unspeakably bloody religious wars of the 16th century when he pictured “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” But maybe he was a prophet, predicting deforestation four and five centuries later.

To know this, and to see a bird outside the kitchen window, should darken my mood, should it not? A look at one bird — even a plump, handsome fellow feeding unconcernedly on the block of seeds and suet I keep dangling from a tree limb through winter — ought to make me think of all birds, right? And the thought of birds as a category ought to be grim indeed: throngs of threatened and dying birds in their ruin’d choirs around the ravaged globe.

Yet I felt the opposite. For a passing moment, mine were the only eyes and this was the only bird. My heart swelled, and I smiled at the bright red jacket and jet-black mask as if seeing them for the first time. Nature is such a snappy dresser. One imagines all creatures in this violent world must be scrambling for camouflage or cowering in bunkers, then along comes this guy, flashy and unafraid. Unknowing, he bears welcome memories of my father and father-in-law, two St. Louis Cardinals fans who, in good times and bad, always invested this time of year — Opening Day — with a flutter of hope.

So, am I wrong to delight in this bird when so much woe stalks birds in general? The question seems pertinent when our mental bandwidth is packed with generalized gloom. There is the problem of climate, the problem of democracy, the problem of gun violence, the water problem, the social media problem, the free speech problem, the policing problem, the inequality problem, the debt problem, the border problem, the overdose problem, and the linked problem of inflation and bank collapses. Oh, yes: And the bird problem.

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The news calls us to think constantly on a very large scale about problems to which no individual holds the key. And to feel jejune if we slip from that lofty, arid plane to delight in something here and now. The starry sky itself could contain the asteroid that will kill us all.

It might not be entirely coincidental that the multiplication of crises parallels the multiplication of experts paid to look for crises. Nor might it be coincidence that the Wall Street Journal and the National Opinion Research Center — excellent sources when it comes to opinion surveys — report that the ground has begun crumbling beneath American morale.

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Compared with a generation ago, the number of people who said patriotism is very important to them fell almost by half, from 70 percent to 38 percent. That community involvement is very important fell from 47 percent to 27 percent. That having children is very important fell from 59 percent to 30 percent. These numbers alarmed me because patriotism, community involvement and raising children are core values for me — sources of great meaning and joy. With so many people moving away from my views, I wonder if something is haywire in the way I think.

Joy is becoming countercultural; in fashion instead is a heavy coat of doom. Anxiety and depression are endemic, psychologists tell us, and why wouldn’t they be, when optimism and cheerfulness are taken as signs of obtuseness? When happiness is a dead giveaway that someone either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, how very bad things are?

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Here’s where that cardinal finally lands: One cannot usefully address a threat to birds if they do not delight in individual birds. (Maybe not all of them, but some.) One cannot meaningfully answer the climate crisis if they lack excitement about the human capacity for invention and reinvention. One cannot make progress toward equality and inclusion if they don’t see and love the potential of humankind — enemies included — and one cannot build the future if one fears the future.

Those poll numbers suggest exhaustion to me, rather than enlightenment — a pulling back from engagement with a world that feels too full of crises and too empty of hope. It stands to reason — doesn’t it? — that the answer is not greater and greater attention to more and more crises. It is more time spent by each of us on the nurture of joy and the cultivation of hope. Which is, as the poet Emily Dickinson teaches us, “the thing with feathers.”