Money Isn’t Everything, But It Helps
Before I read about the crow, I thought I would make a simple statement about the connection between sex, money, and happiness. It seemed reasonable to open this column with the platitude: if we seek happiness in that which is impermanent, we will end up unhappy, for that is what I have to say. Yet the crow shifted my understanding a little bit.
For instance, although a happiness that depends on human relationships or financial security is precarious, for those of us living in the United States during the early part of the twenty-first century, the sentiment ignores certain realities of living in a human body. Research repeatedly shows that a stable income that covers the necessities of life and affords at least some leisure time, does make us happier than one that leaves us struggling every day to find food or pay our bills. The level of burden that poverty places on us taxes our bodies, minds, and spirits, and can lead to despair.
It’s all well and good to teach the breathing in and the breathing out of mindfulness, and it’s a grand thing to sit in stillness while gazing at the boundless sky. A bit of zazen can bring a deep contentment to the most destitute. Even a small bit of nature can soothe our aching hearts. Yet meditating or appreciating beauty is easier when you have a working refrigerator stocked with good things to eat, or when your body doesn’t ache, or when you have the luxury of time to ponder life’s little pleasures rather than being stuck with chores that never end.
Money Can Ease Our Losses
Of course, neither sex nor money guarantee happiness. The wealthiest person experiences loss. Some rich people feel deeply lonely and unfulfilled. Yet money can shield us from trials, tribulations, and traumas.
In my job as a hospital chaplain, for instance, I see the difference money makes in the lives of those who are ill. A person who feels financially secure can cope with his infirmity with little anxiety or stress. If you don’t have to worry about losing everything because you’re sick and can’t work, if you can buy both food and medicine, and especially if you can afford to pay for someone to take care of you, life is easier. It seems presumptuous to assume that happiness is equally available to these two types of patients.
But what about happiness through sexual pleasure? Isn’t that available to everyone, rich or poor alike? Maybe, but maybe not.
Seeking Happiness in Sex
A healthy body is more appealing to those who would have sex with you, so if you aren’t eating well and your muscles ache and hair lacks luster and your smile is dim or marred by broken teeth, you might have trouble finding a lover. On the other hand, you might be so tired and sad you don’t even want one.
Yet even if you’re young and attractive, with your choice of partners, that doesn’t mean you’ll find happiness in the thrill of a sexual encounter. Such fleeting pleasures do not sustain us. Instead, they become another addiction. When tied to the somewhat more enduring joy of a loving and consensual relationship, however, sex can come close to bringing us happiness, but even the best marriage must end one day. Even if we never betray one another, nor divorce, one of us is likely to die before the other. If we depend on our partner for our happiness, that happiness will fade when our loved one is gone.
So although we may need a certain amount of sex or money to enjoy a contented life, these ephemeral joys let us down every time.
The Jungle Crow in A Tale for the Time Being
Then there was the crow. It wasn’t even real. It was just a character in the novel A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. But the crow spoke to me of happiness in the face of loss.
Although novels, like any story, are complex and have more than one theme, I believe it is safe to say that Ozeki’s book is about happiness. Her narrative switches between a diary written by a Japanese girl named Nao and the life of Ruth and Oliver, a couple on Vancouver Island in Canada.
Nao writes about her father’s unsuccessful attempt to kill himself, about her own suffering at the hands of bullying schoolmates, and about her great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun. On the beach one day, Ruth finds Nao’s diary tucked into a red lunchbox and sealed with plastic freezer bags on which a colony of gooseneck barnacles has flourished.
Around the same time, Oliver notices a new crow in a tree by their garden. The crow is larger than the native Corvus corinus, and it has a bulging forehead. Oliver figures out that the bird is a Corvus japanensis, a jungle crow, native to Japan. He suspects it crossed the ocean on some debris, perhaps from the 2011 tsunami in Tohoku that destroyed so much property and took so many lives. Could the bird have ridden on the plastic-encased lunchbox?
The Impermanence of the Universe
That possibility entranced me. What would it be like to float across the sea on this tiny square of real estate?
Of course, just because the crow and the diary showed up at the same time does not mean they are connected. Only in books does the world work this way. We readers appreciate it when each fictional element in a novel has a purpose, because our minds see patterns and connections in everything. Wrapping up loose ends into neat stories makes us feel better. If life is simply a series of disconnected coincidences, then how can we believe in a god who intervenes and makes things better for us? We like the idea of such a god, because she would protect us from impermanence.
So perhaps there is happiness in something solid and forever, like a god. Yet in the world I know, and in the world of Ozeki’s book, the universe itself is as impermanent as an ocean wave or a crow who has lost its way. No god will save us from this reality, so we will have to find happiness somewhere else.
If we cannot depend on serendipity, then it doesn’t matter whether or not the bird rode on Nao’s lunchbox or flew the entire way or rested here and there on boats and ships or was cradled by a cracked door or part of an old dollhouse. In the world of Ozeki’s story, the crow simply appeared. To be able to accept such unknowing is its own kind of happiness.
Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough by the possibilities that I did some research. I discovered that it would probably take years for that little journal to make its way to Canada, bobbing and sloshing here and there, maybe getting trapped for a while in seaweed or corrals.
If the crow did come over on the diary’s back, how did it survive so long? Did it eat the barnacles? Could it catch fish? How did it cope with the tedium? By day, did it try to fight the waves, and by night, count the stars? Maybe it didn’t have time for such foolishness. Maybe it had to fight off sea gulls, sharks, or seals. If it hid on passing ships to sleep through the night, did it return each morning to the lunch box the way a surfer returns to his board? What if he thought Nao’s package? Would he despair?
That made me wonder, what makes a crow sad and what makes it happy?
When I presented such questions to my husband, he quipped, “Flotsam on jetsam,” but otherwise was uninterested in my hypothetical dilemma, so I was left to wonder on my own. For me, wonderment is a kind of happiness, too, but I can’t stay in this land of uncertainty and possibility forever. Even that is impermanent. Life goes on.
So this bird arrived in a new land with no parents, siblings, or mate. Could it possibly, I wondered, find happiness in a such a lonely existence?
Crows, the Problem Solver
Not many people could, and crows are more like us than we sometimes think. They have a complex system of caws and calls, allowing them to communicate detailed information to one another. Crows use tools, recognize individual humans, and solve problems. Like many birds, they mate for life, but they also form bonds with neighbors and other family members. How bereft do crows feel when a partner or relative dies? Some scientists argue that they gather around a deceased community member not for ritual purposes or to say their good-byes, but rather to determine the cause of death. They want to figure out how to avoid such a fate themselves. 
A study of American crows from the University of Washington that used PET scans to observe what was happening inside the crows’ brains when they observed a dead comrade appears to corroborate this. While gazing at a dead crow, the amygdalas of the birds didn’t light as we might expect would happen if they felt sadness or fear. Instead, the area in their brains that cements long-term memories was active suggesting that the birds were indeed trying to figure out something and then remember what they discovered. 
Crows, the Lover
This may indicate intelligence, but it doesn’t prove that corvids don’t experience sadness when a bird they feel bonded with dies. In the experiment, the dead crow did not belong to the community.
So does a crow mourn? We don’t really know, but we do know that a crow’s connection to its mate is strong. The pair develop their own particular calls to communicate with one another. Like apes, they groom each other. They spends hours together every day for as long as they live. For crows, relationships matter. 
This may be a little less true for jungle crows than for others, for they are more like ravens in their social habits than other crows. While all corvids maintain lifelong partnerships, ravens and jungle crows don’t often congregate in neighborhood communities, and they are less connected with their extended family than other corvids. Some of the males may even wander, not mating until they are about three years old, but generally they do not travel very far.  Certainly, they do not cross an ocean.
So what about this poor crow who was the only one of its kind on Vancouver Island? Could it find happiness? The crow wouldn’t need money to be happy. Food and shelter were plentiful on the island. Yet the animal would never find a partner, never share its life with another bird. Along with being lonely, the poor celibate would also be celibate. How would it feel about that?
Of course, if sexual pleasure is as impermanent as money, then the crow wouldn’t need it for happiness. Not real happiness, at any rate.
To learn about real happiness, we can look at the lives of Oliver and Jiko.
Oliver loves the wild land where he and Ruth live, the garden, the storms, and even the darkness of the island. Having no financial need to work beyond tending their home and growing some food, he nonetheless finds satisfaction as a naturalist, even earning a bit of money doing what brings him pleasure: observing, learning, writing, and teaching.
As a Zen Buddhist, Jiko is happy because she understands that “When up looks up, up is down./ When down looks down, down is up.”  Thus, up and down are the same, yet different. In other words, the wave and the ocean, though distinct, are also one. When conditions are right, the wave arises. When those conditions are no longer right, the wave is subsumed back into the salt water. So it is with us. We arise when conditions are right, and fade when they are right no more.
Learning to Come Home
Jiko teaches Nao to meditate. In the breathing in and the breathing out, the girl discovers a sense of peace. When “you return your mind to zazen,” she writes in her journal, “it feels like coming home.”  When we experience this truth in our bones, happiness stays with us always.
This is a nice idea. I want to believe in it, but since I haven’t found enlightenment myself, I can only trust that there is a home I can go back to. I take it on faith that if I practice or pray or stop seeking happiness in ephemeral things, I might even arrive there one day.
Sometimes, however, doubt arises within me. I wonder if Oliver and Jiko would feel as content if money were tight, if their work were gruesome and grueling, if their bellies were hungry, if their skin was beset by boils, and their hearts beset by bullies. Only one who feels so abused has the right to answer this question, and few of them are awe-struck naturalists or practicing Buddhists.
Yet even if meditation does not solve all problems, I do know that when we cling to that which is impermanent, what we think will bring us happiness instead traps us in addictions.
Becoming One with the Waves
I believe the crow understands this. Though these birds have long memories, still it seems that they move on after a loss. They try to understand a death, maybe grieve a little, and find comfort in the connections they have with those who remain. Living in the moment as they do, they understand that contentment is found in accepting our life as a wave for as long as it lasts, then letting it go.
Thus, when one bird dies, the rest find new connections. Having no one like itself to interact with, our island bird bonded with the humans. Toward the end of the book, it even saved Ruth’s life. One way or another, we find what we need to survive. If we try, we may find true happiness.
Some moments, it seems I have found a quiet peace and gentle pleasure that does not depend on the vagaries of my life. When I am still, when I learn to let go, my happiness grows. The crow takes life as it comes, finding enjoyment where it can, letting go when it must. Perhaps we can learn from the crow, or from Oliver, or Jiko, or even Nao. If we practice, we might find contentment and joy in the stillness of the moment. Then we will not be afraid of going home.
Some day, you and I and the crow, will become one with the waves and all will be well, forevermore.
In faith and fondness,
- Weisberger, Mindy, “Why Crows Hold Funerals,” Live Science, January 6, 2016, https://www.livescience.com/53283-why-crows-hold-funerals.html, accessed 10/13/18.
- Werner, Michael, “Do Crows Mourn?,” KCTS9, October 22, 2014, https://kcts9.org/programs/in-close/science/do-crows-mourn, accessed 10/13/18.
- Marzluff, John M. and Tony Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005, ebook, 12%.
- Ibid 30-31%.
- Ozeki, Ruth, A Tale for the Time Being, New York: Penguin, 2013, ebook, Ruth 9%.
- Ibid, Nao 32%.
Photo by aomorikuma（あおもりくま） – Aomorikuma（あおもりくま）／あおもりくま, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8812535
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens