When I was mowing the lawn, I spotted something moving in the grass. Looking closer, I realized it was a huge praying mantis.
I don't think I ever saw a praying mantis when I was a kid. I didn't even know we had them in this part of the country until a couple of years ago.I called Andrew over and showed it to him. I could tell he was used to seeing them by the way he picked it up. I'm not skittish about insects, mice or even snakes. But there is something about a praying mantis that made me hesitate to grab it.
We got a bottle from the fruit room, poked holes in the lid and put the mantis into it with a clump of grass and leaves. Then I brought it in the house and sat it on a shelf where I could study it.
I thought I would write something about it, but I didn't know quite what. So I stalled for several days, just watching and wondering what to do with it. Would it die in the bottle? It didn't seem to eat any of the grass. It didn't dawn on me that it would rather munch on smaller insects. At any rate, by the time I decided to let it go, it was freezing outside every night. By bringing it in the house I had probably extended its life well beyond what it would have lived had I left it alone.I couldn't help wondering what it was thinking, even though I knew it wasn't thinking anything. Still, I tried to imagine what a praying mantis in a bottle might pray about. When I see a bee or fly hit against a window, my first impulse is to sense how frustrated they feel. It's difficult to remember that a fly doesn't feel frustration. I don't know if it even feels pain. Even if it did, would it really "feel" it? And if a praying mantis isn't conscious as we define consciousness to be, is putting it in a bottle wrong?
Well, it finally died. Which didn't surprise me. I feel like a fool, realizing now that if I had fed it a few ants or flies, it might still be alive. Or would it? Just how long is the life expectancy of a praying mantis? Is killing a praying mantis less serious than killing a woodpecker?
Tonight I finally opened the bottle and, with a stick, carefully removed the dried-out carcass. I was surprised at how lifeless it looked. Where before it had been a bright green, it was now dark brown. Its limbs were curled up against the body like brittle strands of sugar candy that would break at the slightest touch. I began thinking about husks of life, of purposes and causes.
I thought about Gandhi and Schweitzer and reverence for life as they defined it . . . even the life of a non-praying, praying mantis.
Gandhi taught that to be truly non-violent required great courage. Schweitzer wrote that "the great defect of all previous ethical systems was that they thought their concern was only with the behaviour of man to man. . . . Man proves his moral stature only when the kingdom of life as such, embracing plants and animals as well as men, is sacred to him and he devotes himself in service to all life that is in need."
So where do I go from here? Do I quit eating hamburgers? Do I ask them to hold the lettuce and tomato. The bun has wheat. Do I hold that, too?
"One being maintains itself," wrote Schweitzer, "at the expense of another, one destroys the other. In so far as he is truly ethical, man strives as much as possible to escape this necessity."
The morality of the present situation, then, is determined by intent, regardless of whether or not I excuse myself by saying I saved Brother Mantis from an early death by freezing. The fact is, I starved him to death.
Struggling to find more information on the subject, I went upstairs to check out what the World Book had to say about Gandhi.
Danny, who was watching television, saw me pull the book off the shelf, and asked, "What are you looking for?"
"Gandhi." I replied. Then I asked him, "Do you think its wrong to kill an insect?"
He thought about a minute and then said, "If it's not doing anything to you."
Not a bad answer to one of the most complicated paradoxes of our existence.