Why Bad Things Happen to Good Parrots



(“Why Bad Things Happen to Good Parrots” is the title essay in the author’s book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good Parrots: A Sermon Under the Mount, available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon, Goodreads and Smashwords.)





“Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns;
yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?”
The Gospel of Matthew




Two little spindles that could have been mistaken for dried begonia sprigs. Except they were stuck to the upper corner of our Econoline windshield. And they were twitching.


This was my introduction to the Problem of Evil at the age of five. The Problem of Evil is also known as Theodicy—a Greek word that means something along the lines of “God on trial.”


Here’s a simple way to frame Theodicy: How could a Universe created by a Being of Ultimate Goodness support, in the words of the philosopher Leibniz, “l’origine du mal” (the origin of Evil)?


Many lump Suffering into the equation as well. For even if Beelzebub engineered grandma’s shingles, our thoughtful provider Jehovah-jireh still had to approve with a snap of divine fingers. Hey, humanity, instead of a fruitcake this year, we got you herpes zoster!


So Evil and Suffering somehow sneaked into our Universe—and one of them, or both, is responsible for those disembodied legs that became stuck to the windshield of our family van somewhere on that endless stretch of Florida interstate during Spring Break 1979.


At the time, my kindergarten brain needed no convincing that our world harbors Eden’s pleasantries. My family had just spent several days being embraced by life-sized Goofys and Donald Ducks. We had collected conch shells and starfish at the beach. We had visited Cape Canaveral. And everywhere we turned, we were invited to pick juicy oranges from trees.


Then came the legs of—let’s call it a sparrow. I suppose those legs could have belonged to a semipalmated plover, but back then I lacked the training to identify an avian species sans landing gear. Besides, the sparrow is a bird rich in spiritual meaning.


The horror wasn’t merely that our vehicle had caused an animal’s death. Lord knows how many insects were splattered across our van grill, and we probably steamrolled a few four-legged creatures during the trek from Minnesota to the Sunshine State. What made this a Prime-Time Theodicy was such palpable evidence that somewhere in our vehicular wake was a bird bouncing about the freeway no longer able, like his proverbial barnyard cousin, to cross the road.


Also, there’s the fact that my father did not pull over immediately and pluck those little spindles from the windshield. For miles (and decades), I was forced to consider the plight of that hapless bird—which one minute was enjoying a fluttering existence, then without notice was razor-bladed by a Ford E-Series.


There was one other incident during that trip to Florida that had a lasting impact upon me philosophically. In those days, It’s a Small World was an innocuous, though compulsory, part of the Walt Disney World experience. One hopped onto a little boat and took a watery tour of colorful, animatronic dioramas that celebrated Mickey Mouse multiculturalism, whilst listening to a throwaway globalism anthem only outdone in schlocky pith by “We Are the World.”


Yet that song isn’t nearly so unoffending when one’s little canal boat gets stuck and a waterway pileup ensues and one is forced against one’s will for what seems hours to listen to those follow-the-bouncing-ball lyrics on a non-stop loop in close, aquatic quarters with dozens of strangers waiting to be rescued from an amusement park ride. At that point, it’s a world much more of tears and fears than laughter and hopes. Of bizarre Evil and Suffering. Of Theodicy.


If you don’t believe me, I know a legless sparrow which will back me up.







No place, from the vacuum of space to the sacred stones of Mt. Athos, is immune from Theodicy. Some places are obvious harbors of imperfection, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Also, somewhere trapped in time, an entire generation of 1990s human beings is wearing Zubaz. I’m willing to bet there’s a sports bar in present day Milwaukee where one can still observe hominids guzzling beer, stuffing their faces with Teriyaki wings and staring at an array of televisions while wearing green and gold zebra-striped sweatpants. (This may be a good place to note that Evil and Suffering often work collaboratively.)


Humans often fool themselves into thinking they can construct Theodicy-Free Zones. Such facades include Viking River Cruises and the George W. Bush Administration. The Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Illinois, may seem an unlikely lair for the Wonder Twins of Evil and Suffering. After all, Wheaton College (my alma mater), institutional caretaker of C.S. Lewis’ personal wardrobe and J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing desk, has venerable roots laid down there. Yet horror auteur Wes Craven is a Wheaton alumnus—by the way, there really is a 1428 Elm Street.


Thus, let us journey ahead nearly two decades to sleepy Wheaton, where under the collective shadow of Aslan, Frodo and Freddy Kreuger, the thread of feathered Theodicy reemerges.


One afternoon during a jaunt to a local mini-mall, as my vehicle idled at a busy intersection between the retail pillars of Banana Republic and Barnes & Noble, I noticed a female mallard waddling anxiously back and forth on a patch of grass at the edge of a curb. She had a troupe of darling ducklings in tow and was faced with the parenting nightmare of catching the merciful attention of suburban drivers obsessed with completing weekend To-Do lists.


In duck terms, the mother’s challenge was no less impossible than a stupid pedestrian feat I nearly once attempted in Paris. I was about to venture into the eight-lane Place Charles de Gaulle circle on my way to the Arc de Triomphe, when an elderly French woman saved my life and directed me to an underground Champs-Elysees tunnel. And to think I was trained in the liberal arts—the poor mallard hadn’t even studied coherent epistemology!


I leapt from my automobile and positioned myself in the middle of the road, arms flailing in Marcel Marceau traffic cop fashion. The mother duck noted the stoppage in flow of metal monsters and made her break. Despite honking from all parties, neither mallard nor man suffered bodily harm; once across the road, the duck family headed toward a nearby pond.






Birds 1, Universe 1. Econoline and Water Fowl each with a goal, Human Beings credited with assists for both teams.


This anecdote may appear to represent a redemption of the harrowing sparrow tale, a real fist in the face to the Problem of Evil. Yet Theodicy can only be interrupted. All “God in the duck” convictions are stayed sentences.


In the end, you cannot prevent bad things from happening to good parrots.







For the better part of a year while working on my undergraduate degree at Wheaton, I was the world’s happiest customer service representative. My joy was only partially related to the fact that I fielded calls for my Evangelical publisher employer in celebrity accent. I once sold devotionals to a lady in Wichita as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Also, many church secretaries the country over were shocked to learn how old age was treating Jimmy Stewart.


The real reason I routinely showed up early for work was more Wild Kingdom and less Rich Little. After parking in the office lot, I walked across the street and spent some time observing a most amazing phenomenon of nature: a large Norway Maple tree that served as host to an enormous colony of parrots. Yes, parrots. Dozens of them, well over 100. All residing in the decidedly non-subtropical Chicago suburb of Carol Stream.


These were quaker parrots, or hooded parrots, easily identifiable as it is the only parrot species that builds stick nests. The Norway Maple had been converted into an enormous condominium of twiggy Pick-up Sticks with multiple circular entrance points. Day after day, I observed with fascination this complex and vocal society of birds that somehow had collectively learned to overcome the brutality of Midwestern winters—not just overcome, thrive. I imagined a great myth that brought this colony from its native South America to the Windy City.


I have watched the sun rise from the peak of Mt. Sinai. My jaw has dropped before the respective architectural and aesthetic splendor of Hagia Sophia and the Sistine Chapel. I once even waved to Prince as he drove by my boyhood home in a convertible purple Cadillac. But none of these wonders can touch the existential majesty of the Parrot Nest of Carol Stream.


Then came a weekend thunderstorm. And with the torrent of rain, the plasma rage of a drunken celestial being. When I arrived at work Monday morning, I slammed on the brakes.


A divine maul had cloven the Norway maple. Large branches and nest twigs littered the lawn, like dissevered limbs and bone fragments spread across a medieval battlefield. And in the street, on the grass, everywhere, were the charred corpses of quaker parrots.


I left my car in the middle of the street and stumbled toward the remnant tree. Not a single living parrot remained. During the storm, the colony had huddled together within the supposed refuge of the timber nest. When the lightning struck, all were roasted to a crisp.


I picked up a barbecued bird and held it in my palm. Holocaust literally means “burnt whole.” The acrid scent of Pure Theodicy.


I wept.


You may spend a lifetime studying the massacres of history, natural and manmade, from the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake to the Bombing of Dresden. From the asteroid that eons ago wiped out the dinosaurs and forever changed the course of Life, to the Rape of Nanking where Japanese soldiers played soccer with the lopped heads of Chinese prisoners. These horrors, while conceptually real, remain impersonal. Yet once you touch an artefact of brute Suffering (or become one), you gain entrance to a special kind of Theodicy Club. Unfortunately, the only benefit of membership is an intimate realization that the Problem of Evil is a force as powerful as the grave fate of Newton’s apple. You will fall at its hand. There will be pain. And you must choose whether, like Job, to engage God anyway or instead to flip a cosmic bird to the heavens.


Before one decides, there is another problem to consider: the Problem of Perspective.


That tragic morning devastated me. For a time, I lost my grip on my optimistic spiritual worldview—which somehow had remained positive despite the fact that not only am I myself an artefact of brute Suffering, but I had also spent significant time in such places as Haiti’s nightmarish Cité Soleil slum. Yet I could not wrap my head around how a just God could permit the obliteration of a unique colony of tropical birds. For some reason, this was the last Theodicy straw.


Five years later, Nobel laureate Saul Bellow published his final novel, Ravelstein, a fictional biography of the great University of Chicago classicist Allan Bloom. Within the book’s pages, I made an exciting discovery:


“I recall that flocks of parrots had descended on a clump of trees that grew edible red berries. These parrots, thought to be the descendants of a pair of caged birds that had escaped, built their long, sac-like nests in the lake-front park and later colonized the alleys. In these bird tenements that hung from utility poles, hundreds of green parrots lived.”


Lo and behold, there were other nests!


Moreover, I later learned that Chicago hosts hundreds of wild quaker parrot colonies. In fact, there is a vast territory of Midwestern quaker parrots that stretches around southern Lake Michigan from Milwaukee to Indiana Dunes State Park. (Coincidentally, this feral population dates to 1973, the year I was born.) There are even wild colonies of quaker parrots in New York and New Jersey—as well as Europe.


And so a lesson begins to emerge. Just as my horror of the Disembodied Sparrow Legs was impacted by the phenomenon being graphically laid bare on a van windshield, so my despair about the Nuked Parrot Nest grew due to my naïve belief, my ignorance, that only one such nest could exist. There are limitations to personal experience, to knowledge gained from a single perspective.


The Problem of Perspective is important to consider when weighing judgment about the Problem of Evil—though no amount of perspective can provide solace to a bird that has suffered dismemberment or electrocution. For this, God remains in the witness box.


Also, now you know why I risked my life, without hesitation, to save a mother duck and her ducklings. I am forevermore a rescuer of birds.


And thus we arrive to the end of regulation with the score tied: Universe 2, Birds 2.


Overtime. One period.







And now I will show you the most venison way.


After college, I moved to our nation’s capital in search of a writing career that continues to play kick the can with me. At one point, I found myself living in rural Brunswick, Maryland, a stone’s throw from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I was told that more than a century before, my apartment building, which had a lovely view of the Potomac River, had been a whorehouse casino and was considered a final civilization way station before one headed into the unknown frontier. (Ah, the superlative marks of human achievement: prostitution and gambling.)


On weekends, I often drove into Washington DC to visit landmarks and museums. One such Saturday morning, I hopped in my lil’ red Chevy S-10 pickup, crossed the Potomac and lost myself in the greatest hits of John Denver. Eventually I left the purple foothills majesty and fruited cow pie plains of Loudoun County, Virginia, and entered a wooded corridor that spits drivers onto a highway headed straight for the Washington Monument.


In the middle of “Rocky Mountain High,” a small object darted in front of my truck. I slammed on the brakes. (If you haven’t noticed, the Problem of Evil is in serious collusion with brake pad manufacturers.) A woman driving from the opposite direction on the two-lane road also stopped her car. While I remained in my truck cab momentarily to assess the situation, she immediately ran over to the roadside and started screaming.


Panicked that I may have sideswiped a wandering child, I ran to the back of my truck—only to be bowled over by the same blur of an object which supposedly I had just crushed.


The woman turned against me, fallen and stunned though I was, “You slaughtered that innocent creature! How could you?!”


No sooner had I collected myself, than again I became the target of the thing’s charging. The “thing,” as it turned out, was a fawn—seemingly no more than a newborn, by its size.


As the baby deer whizzed by me, I noticed that its left ear was dangling by a thread. The fawn paused abruptly on the pavement, then began twirling like a drunken ballerina. The accident had apparently caused massive brain damage. By now, other drivers had stopped and were gathering to behold the pirouetting, mutilated wonder.


The fawn suddenly broke for the roadside and became ensnared in a barbed wire property fence. No one knew what to do. One bystander suggested clubbing it over the head with a tire iron.


“Does anyone have a blanket?” I called out.


No one responded, so I removed my leather jacket and carefully approached the deer, as if preparing to throw a hood over the head of a tranquilized tiger. I wrapped the jacket around the fawn’s midsection, then tugged its body from the fence and hugged it tightly to my chest. A few bystanders clapped; someone helped me envelope the baby animal’s thrashing legs with the jacket.


I had been under the impression that deer are voiceless creatures, but they are not. It in fact turns out that when you remove a bleeding fawn from a barbed wire fence and wrap it securely in a leather jacket, it begins to honk incessantly.


I gazed into the face of the terror-stricken creature, its ear on the verge of falling off with one more goodly honk. Staring back at me—or rather, not staring back at me—were two concave flaps of skin, eyelids, sewn together where eyes should have been. I gasped, then scanned the fence for two little eyeballs skewered on the barbed hooks. I realized the truth.


“It’s blind,” I whispered to myself. “Blind, blind from birth.”


A woman with an authoritative demeanor sliced her way to the front of the crowd. She pointed at my red truck, “Whose is this?”


“Mine,” I replied, holding out the baby deer as justification for stalling traffic on a countryside artery.


She announced she was an off-duty police officer, and I recounted the story to her, including the fawn’s ocular birth defect. The officer asked me what I wanted to do with “it.”




“You hit it.”


I pointed the fawn’s honking snout back in the direction from where I had come and noted that I had seen a sign for an animal shelter about ten miles back.


The officer drove my truck while I held the honking fawn in the passenger seat. Its ear fell off into my lap on the way. We delivered the baby animal into the care of the wildlife shelter and learned, as fate would have it, that a nearby couple operated a deer rehabilitation center. The fawn would be rescued and cared for, despite its sightless condition.


The veterinarian noted that the deer was probably just a week old and likely had just been abandoned by its mother. “It would have died a cruel death from exposure and starvation.”


I stumbled into the bizarre truth. “So what you’re saying, doctor, is that by almost killing the fawn, I saved it.”


The doctor nodded.


Final score: Universe 2, Birds 2, Deer 1. Humans selected to the Theodicy All-Star Squad with 5 assists.







Medical missionary and Nobel Peace laureate Albert Schweitzer struggled with the necessity to take the life of a fish in order to feed his pet pelican. (I know, another bird.) The good doctor framed his Circle of Life Problem as: “I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live.” This maxim became the foundation for Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life philosophy:


“Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”


Sadly, the Universe does not honor Schweitzer’s code of ethical conduct—nor the Golden Rule. Heck, the Universe doesn’t even pull over for emergency vehicles. And for reasons beyond our knowing—again, the Problem of Perspective—God appears perfectly okay with things being this way. Heck, maybe that’s the reason God created the Universe in the first place: to see how limited beings would respond to a wide spectrum of entropy. Also, perhaps God was lonely; hopefully homo sapiens have proven better conversationalists than trilobites.


I have come to the conclusion that the Problem of Evil, Theodicy, is a decidedly human problem. (As well as a problem for birds, deer and everything else that falls within the six Kingdoms of Life.) We are more fish and pelican than God is man. Whatever God is, it is not “life that wants to live.” And even if some sliver of the Divine walked among us for a time to save us from our sins, at no point was the Godhead threatened with being eaten nor dependent on eating. As God explained at the burning bush, “I AM” is a self-sustaining gig.


Don’t go too near any Norway Maples when I say this, but I don’t think the Creator has a clue what it’s like for a mortal being to watch a bird be sliced in half by a windshield; nor to risk one’s life to save a mother duck and her ducklings; nor to stumble upon a mass grave of diaspora parrots; nor to save a blind, abandoned fawn by sideswiping it with a pickup truck.


Was the Incarnation of Christ really as close as God and humanity can come? Pity. Because then even through the ultimate act of divine love, God remains incapable of understanding us.


I once played Macduff in a production of Macbeth. I shed real tears each performance when, as the Thane of Fife, I learned that my children had been slaughtered by the title villain:


He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?



Here is my interpretation of Macduff’s cry: “That damned Macbeth—he cannot possibly understand the pain he has caused me! Because I am a parent and he is not!” Macduff of course carries this sentiment to the story’s conclusion with vengeful consequences.


If there is one thing that really seems to matter when it comes to Suffering (other than that we would prefer not to suffer at all), it is being understood while we suffer. Too often, God seems like the childless King of Scotland.


Yet, despite the fact that my Creator often seems unmoved by my pain, I remain earnest in my desire to relate to Him (and/or Her and/or It)—if for no other reason than He seems to need me. And you, and birds. I have a hunch He’s still learning how to be a Creator. That’s okay, because I’m still learning how to be a mortal dependent being.


Are these blasphemous thoughts? I don’t know. Maybe my musings are Job-like payback for my spiritual path being assaulted by enough birds to fill a Hitchcock film. And don’t even get me started on that dove—or was it a Paraclete?—that pooped on me during Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Then again, maybe all this is divine retribution for the 400 chickens I slaughtered in a single afternoon on a rural Minnesota farm when I was 14.


Again, the Problem of Perspective.


If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably expecting a meaning of life conclusion. Considering how much cheap cabernet has gone into this essay, anything is possible.


I hate to disappoint you. All of these words are just a preface to a prayer some 30 years in the making. I figured you needed some filling in. Thanks for listening.



Dear God,


Ow. Please make the hurt stop.




Arik, your honest servant






(“Why Bad Things Happen to Good Parrots” is the title essay in the author’s book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good Parrots: A Sermon Under the Mount, available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon, Goodreads and Smashwords.)



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4 Responses so far.

  1. Thank you for your thoughts here. Your words are heart-wrenching as well as heart-warming.

  2. Arik says:


    Thank you for your kind words. It’s funny how life pulls us to both sides of the heart spectrum. Warmed and wrenched we toss on her unceasing waves.


  3. […] are recognizing the fragility and precariousness of life. And we are maintaining it. Entropy and Theodicy, you better damn well get out of our way—we are coming for you. We are armed with bags of chips […]

  4. […] are recognizing the fragility and precariousness of life. And we are maintaining it. Entropy and Theodicy, you better damn well get out of our way—we are coming for you. We are armed with bags of chips […]

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