“I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference.” – Henry David Thoreau, The Battle of the Ants
I had an experience as a child that I think on quite a lot. I was in a care area at a bowling alley. A holding pen for children, really, where mothers or the occasional father dumped off their spawn while enjoying a few games, a few beers and some laughs.
As a child, I spent a good deal of time in this place, and then later, at the slightly older kid version, the arcade. My parents were avid enthusiasts of the sport of bowling, and so was my older brother. Eventually I learned to bowl myself. At the time it felt like the final coming of age. I have a trophy somewhere.
On the particular day I remember in the holding pen, I was sitting by myself, minding my own business inside of a sort of a large plastic cube plaything with round portholes cut in the sides. A sort of cubby. Another child came along and decided he wanted my cubby for himself and so began my first, great encounter with unreasonable belligerence. I wish I could say it had been my last, but we all know how the world is.
I couldn’t fathom this child’s interest in my cubby. There were several others, each more or less the same. I informed the child of this and he seemed to not hear. He wanted my cubby. It was important to him.
This is the part of my remembrance that stretches on like days, although the event itself took little more than a minute, and resolved itself rather uneventfully. I’m sitting in this cubby, staring out the porthole at this child, who is larger than me and drooling a little. I can’t decide what he’s aiming at. I’m stupefied by his belligerence, and I stare, in awe. My staring makes him agitated, he stamps his feet and begins braying. He will settle for nothing but my compliance. It is going to be a fight.
Those of you with children should perhaps turn away from this next bit, but the truth about these sorts of holding pens is that they aren’t very well staffed. And the people in charge of ensuring no harm comes to the little children tucked inside tend to be savvy enough to know there’s not a great deal of harm that one child can do to another in a large, mostly empty room without some accompanying noise. And so they turn up the television and sit back and wait for the screaming.
And this is what the monitor of the bowling alley holding pen was up to, at the far end of the room, near the door and the sign-in sheet. It was a young woman, if I recall, who was studiously ensuring no one entered or left and keeping one ear open for the sounds of childhood trauma. It’s as admirable strategy as any for one lonely person barley more than a child herself assigned to corral several handfuls of squalling not-yet-bowling-age miscreants. One can hardly blame her. I certainly don’t.
Unfortunately my belligerent friend was not quite braying loudly enough to be heard over the television. He was canny, this one. As we locked eyes I knew he knew what I knew, which was that I could make a scene, but that doing so would cause us both to be removed from the cubbies entirely. And besides, he’d probably get a good one in before the monitor arrived. For these are the politics of child care centers, and you learn them quickly in such places.
I decided to try a gambit: I scooted to one side and offered to let him join me. My thinking, and perhaps this was naive, was that it would be better to have a friend than an enemy. And a canny, manipulative bully like this odd job would be just the sort I’d rather have on my side than against it.
But Odd Job wasn’t having any. He wanted to win. A draw was not on his agenda. He raised a balled-up fist and thrust it at me. He was going to get his way, or there’d be legitimate violence, one of us against the other. The question for me was: Was I willing to fight?
Henry David Thoreau is a writer I’ve always had a bit of off-and-on flirtation with. I’ve always felt he was somewhat of a crank, to be honest, but many of his writings strike true to me. Walden is the book Thoreau wrote about his two years, two months and two days spent living in a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond. The pond itself is now a celebrated landmark. I’ve swum in it. It’s a fantastic place.
In one chapter of Walden, “Battle of the Ants,” Thoreau writes of fetching wood and stumbling upon a massive battle among ants. An army of black ants and an army of red ants are each locked in battle with one another, tearing each other limb from limb. Fascinated, Thoreau watches for as long as he can stand, and then carries a piece of wood inside with him, upon which one particular red ant is engaged with several black ones.
Thoreau produces a magnifying glass and watches the battle until it ends and the victor stumbles off into his kitchen. He reckons he has never seen the like of this engagement, among man or insect. He is in awe of it.
I’ve read this story numerous times. The first time, I admit, I thought it was ridiculous. The musings of a man alone in the woods with nothing more to do than watch ants. The older I’ve gotten, however, the more meaning I’ve gathered.
The story came back to me most recently as I was hiking in the mountains of Tennessee and seriously injured my leg. I was stumbling to crest a small mountain where I could rest and weigh my options, but each step was agony. I could barely walk for a minute or two without needing a rest.
At one such point I stopped, leaned my head against a tree and immediately saw a tiny bee. As I stood, leaning the weight of my pack against the tree trunk, the bee, oblivious to my struggle, went about his bee business, collecting pollen from mountain flowers and buzzing improbably through the air, as bees do.
I couldn’t help but smile. The sight of this bee reminded me that the universe wasn’t created just for me. That if this tiny, insignificant bee could thrive in a world much vaster and more complicated than it would ever know, then who was I to feel sorry for myself with my backpack full of gear and technology, years of wilderness experience and mastery of the fine human art of making and using tools, simply because I’d hurt a leg. I had another, and more besides. And it was pretty fine day.
It sounds crazy now, to retell it, but watching this bee go about his business, I knew that I would be alright. And that even if it wasn’t, the world would go on quite fine without me. It was my responsibility to live in it, not it’s to ensure that I could.
I am reminded quite frequently as I continue to go about my business in this world that there are people like Thoreau (and me up on that mountain) who take the time to stop and watch the insects, perhaps hoping to glean some manner of understanding of the world, or merely out of an abundance of curious empathy. And there are others, vastly more, who don’t bother. Those for whom the only time an ant may be relevant is when the house is full of those that must be eradicated. But there’s another type of person still. A thankfully rarer sort, for whom the ant is also a curious fascination, but rather one to be tormented. Those who seek out the ants in order to stomp on them.
Many of us do such things as children, of course. I’m not innocent of having spilled a little Mountain Dew just to attract a few wandering soon-to-be insectile torture slaves. Few of us are. But most of us outgrow this childish fascination with inflicting discomfort on others. Most of us are at least able to recognize that harm done to others degrades a portion of our own humanity. But there are those who don’t.
Back in the bowling alley holding pen, I looked into the eyes of this terrible toddler before me and recognized that, whatever kind of man he might grow up to be, on this day, there would be no reasoning with him. Here before me was a murderer of ants. He was in it to win it, as they say, and compromise or reconciliation were not on the menu.
I am not now nor was I then a pacifist. I’ve had blood on my knuckles. But I have always tried to avoid a fight if at all possible, and on this particular day in the holding cell, it was. I stepped away from Odd Job, granted him my spot in the plastic cubby and went about my business in another part of the cell. As I walked away, I stole a glance over my shoulder in time to see the child swallowed up by the plastic cube. He looked very much like an ogre clambering into a cave. I thought he looked very much alone, and I felt sorry for him.
I’ve given a great deal of thought to terrible people since that day. Perhaps too much. But I can’t help but be fascinated by them. There are those who believe the worst emotion is hate, but I know that’s not true. To me the worst emotion is spite; the feeling that grows and festers and justifies the causing of harm to others by fermenting the resulting release into pleasure. Hate can have a cause. Spite is what fills an emotional vacuum.
Obviously I’m thinking on recent events, and how I might have avoided a situation that has, I have every reason to believe, caused another human being as much if not more enjoyment as it has caused me bewilderment and sorrow. My repeated refusal to remember that spite exists in the world causes me to be ignorant of it, which frequently causes me pain. As it did in this instance.
Yet what would the alternative be? To remember that such people exist is a thought that my mind continues to reject. Not out of fear, but out of loathing. Out of a refusal to incorporate such a detestable state of being into my understanding of the world. Out of, perhaps, wishful thinking. In which case, I can’t help but feel as if I am as responsible for my suffering as the spiteful individuals who would wish it on me. For my suffering merely grants them power. My honesty of emotion makes my head like an open wound, waiting to be infected with grief. I’m catnip for sociopaths.
There is no happy ending here. I wish there were. I wish I could wave a magic wand and cause every human being in the world to truly give a shit about every other. I can’t do that. Not any more than I can change who I am at any fundamental level. Spiteful human beings will continue to exist, and I will continue to exist alongside them. And they will torment me, for whatever reason, and I will suffer. To close myself off to the possibility would be to become jaded. Hardened. Indifferent. And I can’t live that way.
As I was climbing that mountain in Tennessee with the busted leg and suffering, I thought to myself how nice it would be to not feel pain. I wished I was harder. And then I spent a full five minutes, exhausted, deriving pleasure from simply watching a bee. It took another two hours to climb that mountain, but the bee is what I remember. Every day that passes, my struggle against nature and my own inherent human frailty grows more faint, but I still remember that bee. I hope that I always will.