I am about nine years old. It’s summertime. I go outside to ride my bike, which is parked in the front yard of our house in the bucolic, rural area in New York State where I live. Just as I reach out to the handlebars I pull back in utter disgust and fear. Some unknown green creature with long legs and wings and a fiercesome looking face is perched on the right handlebar. I almost touched it! What is that!
It looks prehistoric, something I’ve never seen before in my life. I am overcome with fear and nausea. I whack it to the ground and step on it. Shaking, I stand there and look at its crushed body lying on the ground, oozing out disgusting slime, more sickening to look at than when it was alive. I can only feel that I had just saved my life!
At the same time that I feel this I also know that I have just killed a fellow creature and I feel really bad about that. I tell myself I was frightened by it. It looked prehistoric, like a scary small dinosaur, and I couldn’t help myself, which is true, I just reacted and killed it. Instinctual fear drove me to kill.
Years later I read about the praying mantis being an endangered species. It was then that I realized what I had killed that day. To my nine-year-old eyes what I saw was much larger and more frightening to behold than a real praying mantis ever was. At the time I had never seen such a thing and so I could not place it. It frightened me so much that I had to kill it. This was a reaction to the unknown. Sometimes an instinctual reaction crushes the harmless and the innocent in a primitive instinctual projection based on unfamiliarity.
A few years after this incident, when I was about fourteen, I was out with friends. We had come upon some wild grapes. Reaching into the tangle of vines to pick a nice bunch I suddenly felt something clinging to my face. I could not pull it off. I thought is was just a grape vine caught in my hair or something. I asked my friends to help get it off me. They pulled back in horror and screamed!
None of them came to the rescue so I grabbed hold of it, a sticky something clinging tightly, and pulled it off my face with all my might. I held it up and found myself staring at the weirdest creature I had ever seen, even weirder than that praying mantis—a walking stick! It was big enough to cover my entire face. It had straddled my nose and mouth and eyes, stretching from forehead to chin. It must have looked like I was wearing some kind of strange mask.
This time I held the strange creature in my hands long enough to get a good look at it. I’d heard of walking sticks before but had never actually seen a live one. This was huge! I stared at it, freaky though it was, and then placed it carefully back onto the grape vine. Now every time I see a walking stick I am reminded of this experience and I once again remember how I held in my fear and disgust and just looked at this curious creature who shares the world with us. He got to live because I did not let my fear kill him.
In the first scenario I encountered my killer instinct in an automatic reaction to the unknown in the guise of the praying mantis. In the second scenario, although I was equally terrified, I did not react instinctively but instead paused long enough to allow consciousness to work with instinct to mediate and calm my fear, saying, “take a look at what this is and then decide the proper action/reaction.”
I do not judge my nine-year-old self for killing the praying mantis, it’s just where I was at the time. Now I try to live with consciousness as much as possible, pausing, like my fourteen-year-old self did with the walking stick, asking myself pertinent questions: What is the right thing to do in this situation? What is the right thing to feel? What is the right action to take?
We all have killed something at some point in our lives. How many mosquitoes, flies, and pesky bugs I’ve swatted at over my 65 years I don’t know, but I have certainly whacked quite a number of them to death out of sheer annoyance.
At the same time that I admit to that kind of killing, there is another part of me that would never knowingly harm another living thing, but sometimes she’s just not available when I need her. Sometimes the fearful me still steps in and just takes care of business.
A blog by J. E. Ketchel, author of The Recapitulation Diaries.