Once, when no one was looking, I helped a bird.
I lived on the top floor of a five-story, U-shaped apartment block and my living room windows looked across to the opposite side of the U and the roof that overhung it. And there, one day, as I looked out the window, I saw a bird whose leg was trapped in a rusted gutter crevasse. It was a black bird, maybe a grackle, though I'm no good with bird names outside the obviousness of robins or blue jays or cardinals.
As I watched, the bird flapped wildly in an attempt to free its leg. Flapped and flapped and flapped until it ran out of steam and hung defeated while it caught its breath ... and then flapped wildly once more. I watched this happen about three times -- battle and surrender, battle and surrender.
I was and remain no animal activist. I have harmed and wounded and killed animals mindlessly in the past ... not as a habit, but more or less out of some lazy sense that animals, when push came to shove, were in nature's care and nature was not always 'nice.' When I was hungry or imagining I was kool, animal lives took a back seat to my needs.
But as I watched this bird while no one was watching, some kind of imperative just grew up in me and would not be stilled. It had fuck-all to do with goodness or kindness or compassion or any other ethically-delicious element. It was just imperative.
So I climbed up to the roof and threaded through chimneys and water pipes until I came to the place directly across from my apartment. I half hoped the bird would be gone by the time I got there so I wouldn't be put in a position of either hurting it worse than it already was or having it, somehow, hurt me. But there was no such luck. The bird was there, just beyond the roof wall, stuck in the gutter's rusty maw.
When I arrived it was hanging limp, either exhausted or dead.
Gingerly, I reached down, trying to figure out the best way to grab a bird and having no ready answers. When the bird saw my hand, it began its flapping battle with renewed vigor ... which made grabbing it all the more uncertain. Finally, I became sick of my own uncertainties and slid my hand down from its head and over its flapping wings. I could feel its aliveness, imagine its fear. I was electrified with uncertainty and yet knew that my uncertainties were totally useless when it came to helping. So, as gently as I could, I reached down with my other hand and spread wide the gutter trap that was gnawing on the bird's leg. Its leg was out and free in an instant and in what seemed like the same instant I let go of the bird with relief. And off the bird flew.
There was no sense of success or pride. As the bird had been trapped, so had I -- trapped in my own nobody-looking imperative. It was something that somehow had to be done so in doing it, there was no room, no sense to enshrining the event. It was like seeing a $20 bill in the street -- of course you pick it up.
But as I look back now and shudder at the notion that anyone might call it a 'good' act, still I do think that such very natural imperatives are part of the human landscape and are worth paying attention to.
Helping, to the extent that it means anything at all, is just something that can't be helped.