Monday, May 24, 2004

Murderous Enmity

I don't swat mosquitos any more. If I spot one landing on me, I try to wave her away. But once one is fairly at work drinking my blood, there's no way to brush her off without hurting her. And there's no point -- I'm already stung. I let her finish her meal and go.

Once I would have ridiculed this restraint. But that's because, in typical Western fashion, I would have regarded it "objectively." I would gravely have launched into considerations of the moral status of mosquitos, what sort of sensations they have, what rights they might be considered to have, what the proper relations between man and mosquito were, whether it was possible for all people to stop swatting mosquitos all the time, and what the consequences would be if they did -- all the silly, extravagant, far-fetched questions typical of "objective" thought, which, for reasons that elude me, considers itself hard-headed. What do I know about the feelings or moral status of mosquitos? How likely am I ever to be in the position of successfully forbidding the world's six billion people to swat them? These are silly questions.

The subjective questions are far more pertinent, practical, and fruitful. What changes in me, when I refrain from swatting mosquitos? What do I learn by it?

I have learned a number of things. First, I have been able to uncover, in one trivial instance, the subtle but extensive distortions of reality produced by murderous enmity. I had no idea of it, before I stopped swatting them -- in fact I would have strenuously denied it -- but I imputed malice to mosquitos. I regarded them as driven by the desire to torment me. I think it's almost impossible to maintain the intention of killing something without slipping into this. At some level I really believed that mosquitos chose the cool of the summer dawn and twilight to pursue me, because they knew I loved those times, and they wanted to ruin my peace.

I also believed that swatting mosquitos was an effective defense against them. If I didn't swat them, I thought, I would be devoured by them. I would be freckled with stings. A mass of itching wretchedness. By swatting them, I thought I was holding misery at bay.

Now again, I didn't know I thought this, until I stopped. It turns out that how often I get stung has little to do with whether I swat. In fact my impression is that I am stung less often these days. Maybe it just seems that way because I'm less distressed by being stung. Or maybe it's because, having learned that swatting doesn't really prevent many stings, I head indoors sooner when I find that the mosquitos are out. In any case, my unconscious, extravagant estimate of how effective I was at preventing stings has proven entirely wrong.

Third, I have understood just how much I had surrendered control to mosquitos, by considering myself at war with them. It's a little embarassing, in retrospect, to think of what an abject slave of circumstance I made myself. Here I was, the paragon of animals, the crown of creation, endowed with reason and free will, and made, as I'm told, in the image of God -- and a little whining insect could make me prance, skitter, and slap in panic, ducking and writhing as though fencing with a deadly enemy. Was this human dignity? Was this any kind of dignity? In fact, by harboring enmity with mosquitos, I was granting them control over me. I had to swat at them. I read somewhere that some considerable percentage of car accidents is probably due to drivers panicking about having insects in the car with them. If we habitually treat them as mortal enemies, we end up by believing in it. The consequences can be serious.

But the most important thing I have discovered by letting a mosquito sting me -- watching this little creature persistently risk death to get a full belly of blood, so she can produce her eggs -- watching her closely as she settles, pushes her proboscis in, and drinks deep, with little shudders -- is that we are, after all, kindred creatures, driven by the same desires, seeking the same satisfactions. We are not enemies. I can live in a world that holds no enemies at all.

People have injured me before, and they will injure me again. There's no way I can prevent that. But I can live a life that is completely free of enmity. It's as easy, and as hard, as sitting perfectly still at dusk, when the first faint whine and whisper of wings brushes past my ear.

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