The Black Squirrel
Sometimes when you talk with others about depression, the issue of faith arises. Do you have any; how much it helps; what it’s benefits are. How it can’t hurt, can it? What these kinds of remarks always make me think of is the line from a Cheech and Chong routine, wherein a troubled person declaims: “I used to be all messed up on drugs. Now I’m all messed up on Jesus.” The subject also reminds me of a former colleague, who believed absolutely that if she did not obey God, she would lose everything she had, which consisted of a refinanced house she struggled to afford, an older car, and an unrewarding low-paying part-time job. “So, God drives a hard bargain,” I once said, replying to her entreaty that I too could be as fortunate as she was, if only I would believe and obey.
This subject arose again about week or two ago. I was asked about faith and I answered honestly: agnostic. What that means specifically is that I believe in science and evolution and not in heaven or the Bible. I believe that there is certainly a hell, and it’s right here on earth, torturing countless people every day: kidnapped children in Africa, child sex slaves, enslaved workers, the starving, the victims of injustice….where does it end? It doesn’t, and that’s why I believe in it. However, however, I am unwilling to say that I am 100% certain there is no sentient force greater than ourselves within the universe. How can I know that? I can’t, and so I leave the door open, just enough for s/he/it to make an appearance. I don’t expect that door to burst open, but I won’t shut and lock it either. Wouldn’t that go against science? Ruling out an unproven hypothesis? It seems to me that it would, and I refuse to refute an option I’ve yet to see disproven unequivocally.
The woman with whom I was speaking offered a surprising reply to my claim. “Ask for a sign,” she said. “If he’s there, he’ll answer.”
I answered casually, almost dismissively. “That’s not a bad idea. Okay.” And then I forgot all about it.
After our chat, I went back to being very sad. I spent a few hours trying to distract myself, and then I did what I always do, regardless of mood, weather, or preference: I walked my dogs. And on this walk, my mind was divided between the needs of my dogs and my sadness, which felt like a teeter-totter: was I going to sink into a true funk and simply give up on the rest of the day, or was I somehow going to rally, and perhaps prepare a decent dinner for myself for a change, instead of standing over the stove, eating cereal as if feeding myself is just one more ordeal of living to get through, using as few utensils and dishes as possible (because I also hate washing them later)?
But back to the walk. It was on this walk that I saw it: a black squirrel. I stopped. I stared. I think I said, “Oh my God.” And I stared some more, feeling a sudden sense of elation and a reawakening of my wonder at the beauty of the natural world. The fact is, I have a special love for black squirrels. They seem to me to be harbingers of good fortune, both magical and symbolic, though of what, I don’t know. I have never once seen a black squirrel in all the many trees in my small, wooded neighborhood, though I am endlessly observing the actions of the animal world around me. And then I remembered my conversation earlier that day, the one about a sign.
This led to worrying. “I don’t want to rethink my beliefs,” I thought. “This is one of the few areas I don’t wonder about. Am I not to have any certainty? Is this my fate? To be eternally in-between, seeing both sides?” I made a decision. “C’mon. You don’t know. That could have been a fluke. If there is a God, doesn’t s/he/it have better things to do, like help all those people in active, starving misery?”
Can you guess what happened next? I don’t know if it was the following day or maybe a week later, but yes, I saw the squirrel again. And again. I always looked for it, and it wasn’t there every time, but often enough. Often enough.
I told a friend, a Catholic. She listened, gave an opinion, then called me back a few days later. She’d seen a black squirrel in Chicago. “I’ve seen them in Michigan,” she said. “But never in Chicago.”
This got me thinking. What if I did some research that proved unequivocally a recent uptick in the black squirrel population? If I set out to disprove the possibility that my sightings were indeed a sign? Would that be resisting too hard? Surely God could withstand a little cross-checking. So that’s what I did: research. What I found was that black is sometimes a color phase in our usual population of grey squirrels, albeit one I’d never seen in over 18 years of squirrel watching. Mine could be a full black, or it could be a grey in a black phase. Either were possible.
So where does this leave me? Do I dismiss the sightings in the wake of the above revelation? What if I turn it around, and say, “Okay: stop showing me black squirrels, and I’ll take that as a sign”? Then I miss out on seeing one of my favorite Sciuridae. Is there some better, surer form of proof? Do I get to demand the type of sign I receive, making it irrefutable? And at what point does faith enter the equation? Right now I don’t know what to think, other than acknowledging that these sightings feel like little claws scratching at my heart. I don’t know if that’s very good for someone with depression. Or if it’s a way out.