Most of my life is over. There are far fewer years ahead than I’ve already left behind. It’s understandable that ambition’s grip has slackened (like everything else about my body) and that I’ve become preoccupied with meaning.
I’ve believed many things in my life—most of them foolish—but I can no longer believe in the inordinate rewards and punishments of Christianity, the reassuring revolutions of the wheel of karma, nor even the houris and hashish of Islam. What’s left to me is the cold comfort of Sartre, the intellectual exercise of existentialism that lacks heart.
Recently Barbara commented on something I had written, Beaks of Eagles. I’m quoting her comment in full because it was, well, remarkable.
“Do you know if the following is true? When an eagle reaches the age of 50 (approximately), his beak begins to freeze shut, and he can no longer eat. Some give up and die, but some find a cave or cleft in the rock where water is present. The old eagle goes into the cave and beats his beak on a rock until it is broken off. The eagle drinks water for 40 days until it grows a new beak. The eagle then pulls its old feathers out and an oil sack grows and is filled with oil (over the heart). The eagle then breaks the oil sack with the new beak and spreads the oil over his body. Beautiful new golden feathers grow in, and the eagle is renewed. The eagle’s body is also strengthened through this process. The regenerated eagle is then able to fly higher than it ever could before and see better than it could before.”
Frankly, it matters less to me whether it’s true. I could research the life history of eagles but the result would be irrelevant. What’s truly remarkable to me is its mythic quality. It is an elegant, powerful myth of renewal.
An eagle’s beak is it’s most obvious attribute. It defines the bird for most of us. Without a beak in good repair, an eagle can’t survive. In fact, many raptors in the Pacific Northwest have recently been seen with malformed beaks. No one yet knows the cause but, unable to hunt and feed effectively, they are starving to death.
The myth warns that the strengths we have relied upon in youth will not serve us in old age. We have to surrender that strength, transcend ourselves or die. That act of transcendence is painful and solitary. The old eagle beating his beak against a rock is a powerful image. It speaks of sacrifice and vulnerability.
The 40 days of solitude drinking only water sounds like a vision quest or Christ’s wandering in the desert. With its renewed beak, the eagle then plucks every feather from its body. The process must be infinitely painful, like the Sun Dance of the Lakota Sioux. The eagle stands naked and bloodied, raw and exposed, waiting for rebirth.
In a final act of self-sacrifice, the eagle impales its heart on it’s own beak. Little wonder that many give up and die rather than suffer rebirth. It is an act not only of sacrifice but of integration. The eagle is renewed.
This is a myth worth believing.