"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Killing Insects–Ahimsa And Pope John XXIII

Dispensing death and clemency capriciously — killing on petulant impulse, granting pardons at whim — gives me an Olympian view of how men must live and die in battle or disasters: one just unlucky, in the wrong place at the wrong moment, while the guy next to him is miraculously spared for no reason at all. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.

The quote is from Tim Kreider (NYT 11.15.14) writing about ‘smushing flies’. Yes, there are some existential lessons in our wanton squishing of bugs, he says; but few of us give them any thought. They are pests.  Mosquitos bite. Yellow Jackets sting. Roaches are disgusting.  Aphids eat roses. Gnats get in your eyes.  Ants get into the jam.  Cooties make you scratch.  Ticks carry Lyme Disease; and you can never get rid of fleas once the dog dies.

My first existentially insect moment came while staying with a family in Mexico shortly after I had returned from India.  One morning while eating breakfast on the terrace, I noticed a small spider making its way slowly up the garden wall.  Before it had a chance to scurry behind the wisteria vines and under the protective tiles, Emilia, the landlady, picked up the Style section of El Diario and swatted it. Stunned but still alive it scrambled on the stucco and cracked plaster, but still dropped onto the patio floor.  Emilia stood up, lifted her foot high, and squashed the spider into a gooey mess.

Insects are left alone in India.  Rats are trapped and then released. Wasps come and go and make nests in the corners of government offices. Flies are brushed away and roaches ignored.  Spiders are spared because they catch and eat flies.  Wasps live parallel lives to humans. Bats and birds keep the insect population under control. Snakes rid villages of vermin.  Killing any of them is not done.

The sight of Jain priests walking down the roadside sweeping the pavement before each step was common in Gujarat.  It was a symbolic gesture expressing Jainism’s absolute respect for all life and to do no harm – ahimsa.  In a similar gesture of faith, they wore masks to prevent the accidental ingestion of insects.

After living for so many years in a culture in which a respect for all life was common, public, and sincere, it was shocking to see Emilia Sanchez kill the spider.

For years after India I tried to keep this sense of universal respect for life alive. I took down the screens on our doors and windows.  There should be no artificial impasse between the natural world and mine.  One day a bee flew into the playroom where my children were painting. As usual I picked up a towel, gently captured the bee, and was about to release it outdoors when it escaped, flew down my baby son’s shirt and stung him on the stomach.  I grabbed it, threw it on the floor, and squished it into the same gooey mess that Emilia had made in Oaxaca. 

One night my wife went downstairs to the kitchen to get a glass of milk. When she turned on the light, a thousand roaches ran down the drain, behind the sink, into the oven, and under the refrigerator.  My months of insect laissez-faire had created a domestic menagerie of roaches, moths, mites, and earwigs. It had to stop. The house was fumigated, bathrooms disinfected, closets sprayed, and screens repaired and replaced.

Ahimsa remained with me for years, however, and while not a full-fledged vegetarian, I symbolically limited meat and fish in my diet.  My son went a step further and became a strict vegetarian.  I learned how to cook Italian, Indian, and Middle Eastern dishes without meat, and felt good about it.

After two years my son announced that he was quitting. There was no point to vegetarianism, he said.  Every time you take an antibiotic, walk on the sidewalk, or rinse with Listerine, you are killing millions of live organisms.  What is the sense of eating rice and beans and wearing cloth shoes? “What about vaccinations?” he asked. “We are consigning the whooping cough, measles, and polio viruses to extinction.”

Most people who become vegetarians quit after a short time, for they find no good and compelling reasons to continue. Some, like my son, realize the inherent illogic in the ahimsa argument.  Others who have adopted vegetarianism for environmental reasons realize that there are far more pesticides and insecticides sprayed into the environment through crop maintenance than on any cattle ranch. The  truck space required to transport voluminous loads of perishable vegetables adds far more to carbon emissions than any truck tightly packed with T-bones. Those who eat vegetarian for their health find it almost impossible to get enough iron, folic acid, calcium, essential fats, and Vitamin B without meat.

Pope John XXIII’s defense of the sanctity of life was quiet and eloquent.  Life, he said, was a gift from God and never to be treated with anything but reverence and respect.  Abortion was wrong not only because it meant taking a life, but because each abortion progressively degraded life itself.  Women who aborted because of career, inconvenience, or bad timing – acting out of expediency – turned life and death into a practical routine, and deprived them of their moral and spiritual nature.

John knew, of course, that abortion was a way of life and always had been.  He sympathized with unmarried women who had, through no fault of their own, become pregnant and were then subject to the calumny of patriarchal societies.  He understood the plight of poor, marginalized women for whom every new child meant further family penury, hunger, and disease.  Yet he felt that he should not – could not – waver from principle; and that if he was the only spiritual voice in an increasingly secular world, so be it.

The messages of Jainism and John XXIII were the same.  Both knew that the absolute sanctity of life was an ideal; that most people fell easily into expediency; and that it was becoming increasingly hard, even for the most moral, to make sense out of the dramatic and revolutionary challenges to traditional morality, ethics, and faith represented by genetic engineering, enhanced life support, and virtual reality.

The Jains kept sweeping the way in front of them, knowing full well that they were trampling life; and Pope John kept encouraging respect for all life when he knew that life was an increasingly devalued commodity.

I still capture and release spiders, wave flies out of the kitchen and back into the yard, and try to keep the house free from moths and roaches so that I won’t have to kill them; and try to remove the first signs of wasps’ nests before they become mature and dangerous.

In many indigenous cultures, hunters say prayers over animals they have killed.. Killing was necessary, they pray, not indiscriminate.  Hunter and prey were part of the same organic whole.  Even in killing, they say, there is a respect for life.

Kreider shares similar sympathies.

I recently read an article about the survivors of an earthquake in the Tibetan city of Yushu that killed 3,000 people saving thousands of near-microscopic crustaceans from the mud, as an act of devotion. This may seem to Westerners like a trivial ritual, a waste of time, but it is, at least, more real than…condolences. A bug may be a small, unimportant thing, but maybe killing or saving one isn’t. Every time I smush a bug I can feel myself smushing something else, too — an impulse toward mercy, a little throb of remorse. Maybe it would feel better to decide that killing even a bug matters. Does devaluing tiny insignificant lives have some effect whereby we become more callous about larger, more important ones?

Plato's Theory of Forms or theory of Ideas asserts that non-material abstract forms, and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality.  In other words we all live in two worlds – the real and the ideal – and the respectful life results from fusing the two.  One may inadvertently and deliberately kill living organisms, and may even support wars, conditional abortion, and capital punishment; but the reflection on the moral and spiritual implications of such killing is as important as the action.

John XXIII wanted to slow down the pace of secularization and expediency.  The Jains, through their devotion and symbolic gestures, mean to acknowledge the sanctity of life and by their example stay more aggressive hands.  I hope Pope Francis does not back down from the traditional moral teachings of the Church.  I hope as well that the Jains will go on sweeping.

1 comment:

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