A SOFT RAIN is falling outside the window. Drops of water glisten on the branches and twigs. Each drop, you see now, clings to a bud, magnifying the tiny crimson knots, which are the year's way of saying -- the spring returns. Leaves are being born. Blossoms exist already, inside their tiny shells. Life begins anew. The tree's job, with the rain's help, is to show it. Your job is to notice.
If this were the first time you had ever seen living buds appear on a dead twig, you would know too little of the mystery. You would think -- aha, life is victorious over death. The hurt world is recovering. The wars are ending. Suffering is becoming passionate delight. All is well. But because you have seen this manifestation again and again, and because you know what else happens in the cycle of the year, your welcome of the spring return is complex.
Relief is proper to this time of year, and so are the sensual joys of perception -- warmth on the skin, perfumes of the air, the sudden sight of robins, the illuminated world. Yet every such signal of rebirth comes with its own contradiction, which makes it all the more precious. This complexity of death and life together, stretched across a realm defined by the movement of planets and stars, is what you call time. Time is the cosmos. Time is your native country. Human beings have a built-in tendency to imagine life and death as opposite forces in conflict with one another. If, across the stretch of the year, life and death seem equal, each with its season of triumph, the human story is not so simple.
Accidents, illness, the purity of aging all mean that, person by person, death has the final word in the human story. And humans, apparently unlike other creatures, know it. Tragedy, therefore, is your native language.
Every individual's story, unlike the springtime narrative of eternal return, proposes the recognition that death is more powerful than life. It feels right, therefore, to treat death as the enemy. Every person leaves the world as the victim, so it seems, of a betrayal. How can death's inevitability not be terrifying? How, when it strikes first at your beloved ones, can you not be left bereft? But there is something in your very awareness of all of this that changes the meaning of such experience. You are the creature that looks out the window and, seeing a drop of water on a nascent bud, insists on seeing something more. Seeing this. You know what pain feels like, and are also capable of grief, but the pinch of such experience awakens a broader consciousness that is not defined by the narrow limits of time. You call it memory, which is a way of knowing that is every bit as vivid as sense perception.
Indeed, memory and sense perception quicken each other, so the present and the past are never apart, and what they constantly create together is a picture of your future. The future, even at the moment of death, is always there. This is the interior world of time, and it is as real to you as the world of light and aroma, of loss and renewal. Human consciousness is itself the transformation of human limits. You imagine an afterlife, and you either accept it or reject it as defining some kind of literal experience.
The idea has been a common antidote to death. You know that human beings have invoked the notion of ''God" here, as if the only way to make sense of death is to imagine being magically plucked from it. No loss. No grief. ''God" solves the human problem just by removing it. But what if the human triumph over death consists simply in the knowledge of it? What if the ''other world" for which you long exists already in the contemplation of mortality, an interior world out of which this train of thought is coming?
Perhaps the awareness that you take so for granted, what enables you to follow this chain of words, is itself already an opening to a grandeur that remains.
You and yours have been mightily obsessed with the end of life lately. The news is full of death's great battle, which has a way of making all humans foolish and sad. But close attention to the improbable truth of attention itself, sparked by a little water on the black branch outside the window, can lead to an absolute affirmation of life. Life to the full.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.