The old man didn't believe in much, and he certainly didn't believe in anything he couldn't prove. He was too intelligent and too learned to indulge himself in beliefs that required faith -- that was just too simple-minded and uneducated for a college professor.
He wasn't completely passionless -- he did love his birds.
As a trained biologist, he knew every detail of the physiology and behavior of animals in general, and, as a ornithological specialist, his knowledge of birds was particularly deep and broad. He was unabashedly vain in the surety that he knew practically everything there was to know about birds -- he was darn near omniscient when it came to feathered fauna. He lived alone and kept several feeders in his backyard to attract the birds he loved so much -- they were his company, and he often, embarrassingly, caught himself talking out loud to them.
He stood at the window as the light of the late December afternoon dimmed to early evening twilight. It had snowed most of the day and several inches had accumulated. The temperature was dropping precipitously -- it was going to be one of the coldest nights of the year. But, that hadn't deterred his neighbors from their annual ritual of asking him to join them at church for Christmas Eve services. He had politely refused, and even wished them "happy holidays," even though he considered it hypocritical to do so.
His principled disbelief in the basis for the holidays prevented him from even recognizing Christmas in any way. There was no decorated tree in his house, no silly lights outside, and certainly no gift giving. He was no hypocrite.
As darkness fell, he heard the bells ringing from the church down the road, and he marvelled at the waste of time, energy, and resources devoted to Christianity. How could anyone with half a brain buy in to the "immaculate conception" fairy tale? If there was a God running this universe, and he was fairly certain there wasn't, why would he waste his time on the insignificant life forms on an insignificant rock circling a nondescript star in a galaxy of billions of stars, in a universe of billions of galaxies?
It was snowing again, and he reached over and turned on the outside light so he could watch the flakes fall. His attention was drawn to the ground just at the edge of the circle of light, where a flock of small birds was huddled motionless in the snow. He was immediately concerned. He had seen this kind of behavior before and it normally resulted in the death of all the birds in the flock. Stunned by the sudden onset of bitter cold, they would just sit there and freeze. He hated to see that happen. He loved his birds and it just tore at him anytime he found one dead. He had to do something for this flock.
He quickly pulled on his coat and boots and stepped outside in the snow. He thought maybe he could scare them into some life-saving activity. Maybe he could chase them into the air and they would fly somewhere safe. He waved his arms and stomped his feet, but the birds just moved out of his way and continued to huddle in the snow.
He walked across the yard to his workshop at the back of the lot, opened the door, turned on the light, and stooped to turn on the space heater in the corner. He propped open the door and then stepped outside and into the shadows. He hoped that if he remained motionless and hidden the birds would see the light and warmth of the workshop and move inside.
After a few minutes, it was obvious that the birds weren't going to take the initiative to move into the workshop on their own. He would have to try to move them himself. He walked over to the flock and bent to pick up a bird, but it fluttered away and landed on the other side of the flock. He tried several times to catch a bird, but the results were always the same. He tried to herd the birds toward the warmth of the workshop by stooping and waving his arms, but the birds just scattered in front of him and then rejoined to huddle in the snow.
Again and again he tried to shoo the birds toward the lifesaving warmth, and he became increasingly frustrated at his failure to save them.
The temperature was dropping perceptively and he noticed that one of the birds had slumped lifelessly. He redoubled his efforts to herd them to the workshop. Another bird slumped in the snow. He was frantic now, speaking to the birds, trying to reason with them, and then caught himself, embarrassed.
He said to himself aloud, "If I could just become a bird for one minute, I could lead them to the light and warmth of the workshop and save them from dying in the snow."
At that moment, the bells on the church down the road began to ring again.
The old man sank to his knees in the snow and understood.