I was swimming in a lake in the Philadelphia suburbs, as is my wont on a summer afternoon. Out in the middle, I saw an insect floating, and I identified with his struggle. I lifted him out of the water and he tried to fly, but his wings were too waterlogged, and he fell right down. So I lifted him onto my finger and held that hand out of the water while I swam sidestroke for awhile. He dried in the sun for about a minute, then picked himself up and flew somewhat further before falling back down in the water. I thought he really needed to dry out for longer, so I swam breast stroke, pushing him on a water wave ahead of me until we got close to the shore, where there was a fallen tree in the water, and I lifted him onto a branch. There I said good-bye, and swam off, hoping he might dry off thoroughly enough that he could fly to the shore and safety.
All the while, I was thinking what a Buddhist thing I was doing. Or maybe Jainist. Or maybe I am just taking the idea to extremes, that all life is worthy of our reverence. It was only after I swam off that I became curious about the taxonomy of the creature whom I had helped.
Delta wings with an orange underbelly…
As I realized that I had rescued a lantern fly, I was flooded with a whole different set of feelings. Here I thought I was experiencing a tiny connection across a wide genetic gulf. But at the same time, I was putting myself at odds with my neighbors, who are on a campaign to exterminate lantern flies. I thought about C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters, in which Satan’s advice on how to capture souls was to: “Make sure he loves mankind but can’t stand his mother in law.”
Am I a deeply empathetic person who carries non-violence to the point of catching mice in have-a-heart traps and carefully shephering wasps out the window? Or am I so accustomed to virtue-signaling that I do it even when there’s no one around to signal? Maybe both?
And what about lantern flies? I truly think that the campaign to kill every last lantern fly in Pennsylvania is doomed to failure. They are a new reality that the ecology is just going to have to adjust to, as they fill their niche and attract predators that will keep their numbers in check. But I also realize that this belief separates me from my neighbors who are doing their part with backyard lantern fly traps. It’s making me lonely.
Why have I spent so much of my life being morally superior and lonely?