Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Struggle for Existence

 Today I took two forays into the world. The first one was with a friend of mine, Kylie, who was breaking in (so to speak) a new Irish Wolfhound, a quite loveable dog who wasn't entirely at peace with other dogs. We had a nice breakfast at a local cafe, then wandered around the fortnightly Farmers' Market, and just as we started to enjoy ourselves and contemplate buying things, the clouds quite inconsiderately decided to empty themselves on our heads, so we eventually gave up and went home. At least it was just heavy rain, and not flooding, although the weather-system was the tail-end of one involved in widespread flooding.

Later, when the sky was a bit firmer and less likely to collapse on my head, I went for a bit of a walk. I was in a ruminative mood, and inclined to notice the little things. One of the little things I noticed was a massive, archetypal struggle between the forces of Good and Evil, the desperate struggle for life.

 I got to watch a St Andrews Spider (after the position of its legs at rest) trying to bundle up and poison a "Christmas Beetle" Its Latin name is unknown to me, an Australian bug we used to see a lot when I was a kid around Christmas, but now, unfortunately, obviously near or over the brink of extinction, since the one I'm talking about was the first I'd seen in years. 

The spider was bustling around, wrapping silk from its abdomen, and every few seconds viciously biting the beetle's carapace or its head or something. Every time it bit, the beetle would convulse, struggle violently, then give up. As the spider wrapped it some more, it would start struggling again, and the spider would bite again. Every so often the spider would invest a quantity of silk only to have the beetle tear it partially away. After nearly half an hour of silent, intense, savage and personally vindictive battle, the beetle managed to break enough silk to fall out of the web, which was unfortunate, because its wings were too well-wrapped to fly, and it was two floors down from the balcony where the conflict took place to the concrete garden path below.

I watched the whole thing, mesmerised, knowing I should either free the beetle for its sake, or kill it for the spider's sake, and doing nothing. The beetle deserved to live given its total lack of surrender, and its willingness to struggle no matter the odds against it but given its inability to fly and its fall, I feel bad that it ended up probably dying a slow and miserable death anyway.

But the whole incident, as I watched, crystallised in my mind into something that was bigger than the spider's struggle for survival and its next meal, against the beetle's struggle for survival and freedom. Both animals were utterly desperate. Both animals needed to win to ensure survival. And both of them were exerting themselves as hard, or harder, than most of us ever have in our lives.

This was drama on a grand scale, as big for them as any war scene or any struggle to survive a natural disaster. There is nothing about being one kind of creature that makes it inherently superior to any other kind of creature: as someone said recently, a fly is as beautiful and as complicated in its engineering as a lion. Animals can only eat what they are designed to eat: a spider does not know there is anything wrong with eating beetles, because that is what spiders are supposed to do. And the pain that the beetle felt was as great as the pain any of us our our children may have felt.

Both creatures were utterly engaged in the struggle, and to them, I was less than nothing. Both of them had far more important things going on, than anything that might have been happening in my life: I was merely passing time, while they were completely thrust into a life and death combat.

How often are we blind to what is going on for others around us? I remember once, when my daughter was about six, I was bringing her home after a weekend at her former step-father's in Lane Cove, and he had said something to her that completely broke her heart: that he wasn't ever going to see her again in her life - because I forgot to bring something with me when I brought her down, which I had said I'd give him. He in his anger was looking to punish me, and he knew being utterly callous to her and hurting her would punish me.

And that's as far as he thought, apparently. The fact that she would be hurting, and would end up hurting for many years even after he re-entered her life and started even tutoring her for her school exams, wasn't as important to him as hurting me through making me witness her ongoing distress. He thought as little about his effect on her, as the spider thought about its effect on the beetle, or the beetle thought about whatever concerns I might have had as I watched them struggle. Buddhism, a philosophy of non-attachment to people, places, situations and things, enabled to reconcile himself with the effects of his choices. She wasn't so lucky - she didn't have a position of moral superiority to resort to, as he did.

The train trip was a little under an hour and a half, and she sat on my lap and sobbed quietly the whole time. She never once screamed - she was too heartbroken to have the energy to do so. There were other people in the same carriage, and while I was aware that each and every one of them had their own lives and their own problems, only one of them was my child, so I really only cared about her. I was just thankful that she wasn't crying very noisily - some people in the carriage were managing to sleep through her moans.

But not all, apparently. As we were walking through the carriage to leave the train after it pulled into our station, one woman who had been still and silent for the whole trip suddenly swore savagely at her as we walked past, telling her not to be a "snivelling little sh*t". She had no idea of the huge loss and betrayal the child had suffered that day, and how it would impact her life for over a decade so far, and possible for life. She had her own concerns and her own stresses, so I didn't take her to task. I had no way of knowing what stress she was under that day - I was in no position to judge.

None of us behave ideally. At all times, someone will be hurting someone else. On balance, I would rather have been the spider, causing physical agony and probably death to the beetle directly, than to have been my ex, using words to wound her heart knowingly, and somehow justifying it to himself as a suitable punishment for me, who had done something wrong.

Ideally, in life you can only take the best possible course of action. And I try. Which is why I believe that it is hypocritical to eat meat and then claim you do not kill a living thing: to me, killing your food directly and honestly has more moral fibre to it than paying someone else to kill it so that you do not have to admit to yourself that it happens.

What are your thoughts on the importance of being aware of the feelings of others, or the consequences of your actions? Can you illustrate that with examples from your own life?


  1. You're right - we all hurt people - sometimes from fear and ignorance and sometimes intentionally, from judgement.

    For me now, the secret is to try to be loving each day, not in a fake way. but to start out the day with the best intentions. Sometimes it can be really hard to maintain this intention throughout the day - fear or fatigue may inexorably intervene - and there are many simple but difficult strategies one has to develop to support good intentions.

    One of these is to resolve and let go of failure immediately because brooding on failure can drag one down. One has to let go or detach from the moods of others as well. Now may not the time to interact.

    I love these words from 'Matins' by John O'Donohue from his book 'Bless the space between us' -

    "May I live this day

    Compassionate of heart,
    Clear in word,
    Gracious in awareness,
    Courageous in thought,
    Generous in love"

    Nisaba, personally I don't feel that it would be productive to share my own lived experiences of failure or hurt! There have been many but now I have to create the kind of thinking and life that I want to have in the days remaining.

    Many blessings :)

  2. I understand that! It's nice to see other people have thought about these things too.

  3. Oh lordie Nisaba, I fall over too far backwards on this one. I'm so busy making sure I don't damage anyone else by incautious words or actions that I end up getting myself in strife that I can't extract myself from (eg living with an intractable alcoholic for 17 years). Didn't even struggle till the last 3. I'm the beetle without the will to live... or I have been, in the past.