Mr. Graff was teaching us about Shakespeare’s Hamlet in senior English and commenting on a famous line from the famous play.

“’There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,’” he quoted, and looked up at all of us, closing his small, green, hard backed copy of Hamlet. “Let me tell you all about what that line means.”

He stepped back from his podium and pointed out the window. “It’s smack-dab in the dead of winter…there’s a blizzard going on and there’s a tiny bird sitting on some bare, cold branch…and it dies and drops into the snow…and no one ever misses it or notices that it’s gone…but you know what? It is noticed…by something greater than the bird, greater than the tree and greater than the snow. What ever you believe is higher is your own business, different strokes for different folks and all that, but whatever you believe, there’s got to be something higher that sees it. Every little thing is noticed somehow, especially when it’s not there anymore.”

He stopped for a few moments, slightly switched gears, and went on.

“When my father was still alive, I used to drive over to Scranton almost every day to visit him. And every day, along side the highway going to Scranton, this old guy walked. Miles and miles this guy walked, and every day, at the same time. He always wore all black and he had a very bald and very tan head. Man, he had to have been one tough old bird to walk like that every day. I’d drive by and I’d wave…and he’d raise his cane in salute…and other people would wave too. And then, driving to visit my father one day, he wasn’t there. Next day, I tried driving at a slightly different time and with a different speed, and he still wasn’t there. Next day, wasn’t there…next day, wasn’t there…then a few days later I saw him in the obituaries. The Walking Man, they called him…and it never really felt the same driving to Scranton after that. I know I made him feel good when I waved because it turns out that he had been a very lonely person. It’d great to make someone else feel good…even if it’s for a few seconds. You can’t do everything all the time, of course, but as my old boss used to say when I worked part time for a golf course picking up balls, ‘Do whatcha could.’ Just do what you could (or can, for correct grammar), and no matter how small it is, it is never over looked.”

I first read this writeup about a month ago. I've rarely had such a visceral negative reaction to something on E2. But Mr. Graff missed the point.

He said: "there's a tiny bird sitting on some bare, cold branch...and it dies and drops into the snow...and no one ever misses it or notices that it's gone...but you know what? It is noticed...by something greater than the bird, greater than the tree and greater than the snow. What ever you believe is higher is your own business, different strokes for different folks and all that, but whatever you believe, there's got to be something higher that sees it."

This quote from Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2 comes just at the point when Hamlet is preparing to fight his final battle. Since he's a tragic hero, we know he's going to die. Even he and his friend Horatio know he's at risk, and Horatio offers to buy him some time. But Hamlet replies:

Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is't to leave betimes?

This is where the famously indecisive prince makes his decision. He has come to understand that no matter what happens, he will die. Accepting that, he is free from the fear and turmoil that's gripped him throughout the play. His fate is sealed--and, he now understands, always has been. He can go calmly to meet his fate.

But there's another layer to this quote, for Shakespeare was quoting Jesus, who said: (Matthew 10:26-32, NIV):

So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Jesus, like Hamlet, is telling us that we don't have to be afraid of death. When good people go out to preach the Word of God, some of them are going to die. But it's all part of God's plan. No matter what happens to you in the world, no matter how bad things get, you can be sure that God is caring for you just as God cares for the tiny, almost worthless sparrows.

I suppose that scholars will debate on whether Shakespeare intended Hamlet to be thinking of the afterlife, but Hamlet and Jesus are both trying to let us know that we should get over our fear of death. I'm a Christian, but I have to admit that I would rather share a world with brave atheists than paralyzed Christians.

This passage of the Bible also has an important message that we don't necessarily want to admit. Jesus says that God wills the fall of the sparrow--the cute little bird dies because God wants it to. This is not an entirely comforting message--what kind of God would do that? We never get a satisfactory answer. Instead, we get the cross. God makes choices that we can't understand or even justify, choices that cause us to suffer. But the Gospel--the good news--is that God isn't up in the sky standing outside our suffering. No, God is in the world, getting dirty, taking on the weaknesses of humanity, and even suffering a terrible death. The Christian God doesn't give us the answers, but does take on the burden of living the same crappy life that the rest of us have to put up with.


P.S. I have to add that I don't think much of Mr. Graff's self-congratulory attitude about his daily wave to a lonely guy. Imagine how he could have affected the Walking Man if he'd stopped to talk to him--or given him a ride. A gift in which you don't expose or risk yourself isn't much of a gift.
P.P.S. I've linked to nodeshells. I dare you to fill them.

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