Philosophy and the Insect

Philosophy and the Insect

By Stephen O’Connor

 As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.      –Shakespeare

My father was a religious man, a devout Catholic who got down on his knees every night to pray. Though he regarded Catholic theology as the true doctrine, he was curious about other religions and respected people of all faiths. I remember him telling me once that he had spoken with a Hindu, who told him that it was bad karma to kill an insect. “Bad karma,” as we understood it at the time, was something like a sin. I’m sure we both thought this idea was odd. Though one had to admire that sort of commitment to nonviolence, a solicitousness about the fate of a bug struck us both as bordering on silly.

I don’t know what it is about aging, or maybe it’s maturing, or the fact of the deaths of family and old friends, but my feelings on this point seem to have evolved over the years. When Woody Allen was asked by a French reporter a few years ago how he felt about death now that he had reached an advanced age, he responded, “Death? I’m against it.” When you are truly against death, you must hesitate to kill anything, it seems.

Robert Frost once saw an infinitesimal insect crawling across the white sheet on which he was writing. He poised his pen above the tiny creature and paused. He considered how the “considerable speck” appeared to realize it was in danger and was moving as quickly as it could in quite a panic. “It didn’t want to die,” he says, and finally, he allowed the insect to live, concluding:

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Shakespeare’s Lear lamented,

And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.

Why shouldn’t the dog, the horse, the rat, even the lowly insect have life whether the king’s beloved fool lives or not? In the workings of the universe, there is no hierarchy of living things. No creatures “want to die,” and all will follow their natures and use guile, fang or claw to stay alive. Universe does contain the prefix “uni,” and I see now that the Hindu was right in thinking that we are all part of one thing. The molecules that make us up derive from plants, from other animals and from stardust. I once heard someone say, “We are the eyes of the earth looking at itself.”

The result of all of these ruminations, for me, has been this. I sometimes see a bee trapped against the glass on the back porch. Bees are good. We need bees. I’ll put a glass over the bee, slide a piece of cardboard under the glass and release the bee to go about its business. Other harmless insects get the same treatment.

I’m unable to be so dispassionate and humane in the case of all insects, and for that I may suffer some bad karma. Anything that might do me or other humans or my dog harm must die. Mosquitoes and ticks top this list. Occasionally, a centipede makes an appearance in the basement and a few have even been known to make it up to the kitchen. I believe that there is something that humans instinctively find repulsive in a centipede. Too many legs. Which means they run fast. I will kill a centipede before the slightest trace of Hindu philosophy or universal benevolence can ignite a spark in my brain. I will slam my fist down on the “cowerin’ timorous beastie” with such violence that I am in danger of breaking my hand. The only grace I can grant them is sudden death. They are too ugly for us to tolerate. That is the unphilosophic truth. But who would kill a Ladybug?

Yesterday, after returning from the woods with my dog, I washed my hands at the kitchen sink and saw in the corner of the sink, a very tiny black insect. I was sort of hoping it was a tick I had just washed off, which would spare me any philosophizing as I carried out the immediate death sentence. I put on my glasses and studied the unfortunate insect, who was desperately trying and quite unable to climb up the stainless steel sides of the sink. Well, there was no doubt about it. It was not a tick. It was a very tiny black spider. The philosophizing began. I imagined myself on a raft in the Pacific while some Supreme Being considered whether I deserved a gentle landward breeze or a hurricane. I would need all the good karma I could store up, because like Shakespeare’s “wanton boys,” I have killed flies for sport.

Duly chastened by these thoughts, I got a shot glass, covered the wee insect, slid the paper underneath and brought it outside. I hung the shot glass upside down near the front steps and watched as it lowered itself to the ground on a gossamer thread. “You amazing little creature,” I couldn’t help thinking.

Something very strange happened then. I had signed up to receive notices and articles from National Geographic in my email. Shortly after delivering this spider from my sink, I received an email from the aforesaid source. I wouldn’t lie to you about this; it would be bad karma. The title of the article was “Small Spiders have Big Brains That Spill Into Their Legs.” Apparently building webs requires a big brain. Here’s the kicker. The spider in the photo at the top of the article bore a striking resemblance to the one I had just released. Somewhere, Robert Frost was smiling.

6 Responses to Philosophy and the Insect

  1. David Daniel says:

    Stephen O’Connor’s wise meditations on life and death and other matters beyond our ken, leavened, as always, by his sidelong humor and fondness for literary allusion, make for a perfect morning read.

    Yesterday’s sun, today’s rain . . . things needed by all creatures, great and small. There’s the Bible verse, from Genesis, that speaks of “man” having “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Its andro- and anthropocentrism aside, this raises a serious question about how effective we’ve been in our self-appointed role as stewards of life on this planet. We can do better–perhaps by reckoning that there are more things than are dreamt of in our philosophy . . . that we’re all in this together. But mosquitos, ticks, hmm, yeah . . . that’s gonna take time.

  2. Kev P says:

    Very interesting my Professor friend it was fun to read this on a rainy day here in Hampton Beach made me think a bit of what not do in the near future

  3. Jerry Bisantz says:

    Death to ticks, from the larger Wood Tick to the tiny Deer Tick that covers my dog every time I emerge from Dracut Woods! I do, however, find myself reticent to extinguish the life of certain insects, and, until I read Steve’s philosophical meanderings on this issue, always wondered why. As usual, O’Connor makes me think. And that hurts my brain. Thanks a lot, Steve, as I head for more Tylenol!

  4. Ed DeJesus says:

    Hmm. When it opens by mentioning that his father took to his knees nightly, you know you’ve been drawn into Mr. O’s word web, and it would be bad Karma not to pay close attention to where he is going. You find yourself unconsciously scratching at the two insect bites you got the night before on your evening walk and are now bleeding because you are also on blood thinners. When you’re done reading and mentally drained, you decide that this could have been titled “The Deciders.”

    But you know what really bugs me? I’ll never be able to craft a piece like Steve’s that skillfully weaves philosophy, religion, poetry, guilt, humor, and empathy together. As always, Steve, well done!

    On the other hand, I take consolation in knowing the reason he suddenly received an email about spiders. You see, it took big brains to develop the World Wide Web and bigger brains to write AI and spy code that knows everything you are researching online, writing about, or sending to bloggers to post later. They easily determined the next article for him, not just because it was interesting but because it was also crawling with sponsors inside.

    Trust me, the deciders are watching.

  5. D H Webster says:

    I once read in a Clamshell Alliance pamphlet (of all things)(years ago when I was an ill-informed Liberal protesting the Seabrook Nuke Plant) a little FYI paragraph called “Grit Your Teeth”. It said when a mosquito bites you, it injects a coagulant which makes it easier to suck your blood up its nasty little proboscis. Then when its bloated abdomen is satiated, it injects an anti-coagulant to resume the blood flow. So when you smash it, you interrupt its process. Hence the week-long itchy welt. Well I’ve tried it several times and son of a gun it works! No welt no itch! Of course don’t try this when you’re getting swarmed in an area of malaria or triple E! But it works! Now I’m allergic to wasps and wolf spiders. They’re going down! I’m even allergic to the noble honey bees my brother keeps in my yard. But I continue to do my yard work with continued faith and hopes that they’ve become accustomed to my pheromones.
    But leave it to my old friend Mr O’Connor with the brilliant brain, clever wit, and beautiful writing skills to spur these deep thoughts about bugs.(and BTW,buy all his books! They’re superb!)
    And about the Hindu guy: he obviously wasn’t in Europe when the nasty Black Plague flea wiped out a third of its population. Too bad they didn’t have The Orkin Man then!
    “To Every Bug, There is a season?” 🐞
    No, I better stick with the music.🧐
    And Steve, go easy on the Centipedes. I also once read they are predators to the bad bugs! 🪳

  6. Steve O'Connor says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, and Ed, don’t sell your writing short. You have a writer’s memory and know how to tell an engaging story replete with details.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *