Consider the moth


Today I was in the kitchen when I heard water splattering in my living room. This happens every day when my upstairs neighbor waters the plants hanging off her pseudo-balcony. And like I do every day, I rushed over to close the sliding door separating my unit from the courtyard so the water wouldn’t splash onto my desk.

With the slam came a fluttering of wings, and a disoriented moth landed on the glass inside my apartment. Over and over, it thrust itself at the glass. I watched its futile attempts with pity as the water cascaded down the other side.

Oh to be that moth: jolted out of your reality, fighting to get back to your place of contentment, but there is an invisible barrier between you and your preferred state of being. Everything is blurry and you don’t understand why, but you suspect maybe this is the end. Life is life.

Also, there is also a giant monster behind you.

I waited until the water droplets stopped falling and slid the door a little bit open, but the moth remained fixated on its point of reference on the glass. Its delicate body bounced off it over and over as it tried to pass through, as if hoping its own confusion of the physics at work would give way to an equally confusing but advantageous escape.

I slid the door further open, but didn’t want it to get stuck between the doors, so I grabbed a piece of paper and gently encouraged it to move to the left, toward freedom. Not trusting the monster, it kept trying to exit through the glass with greater urgency. The more I tried to help it walk onto the paper, the more it went the other direction, until it flew to the top pane of glass, exasperated.

I stared at that moth and considered the implications. Overwhelmed by its most basic instincts for survival, the moth was actually increasing its chances of death. And sometimes life is like this. Perhaps it is like this for all creatures living in artificial worlds. How ironic that the behavioral traits which would have ensured our survival in a world without man-made constructions, that the behavioral impulses that would have deemed us most fit, are sometimes the factors that can now put us at the gravest disadvantages.

I pitied the moth because it did not understand its condition. It could not sense that the path to freedom was only six inches away, an exit well within its physical capability, but far outside its reality. I don’t know what the world looks like to a moth, but I would imagine it knew that the bright, tree-filled, outside world in front of it would lead to the fulfillment of its moth life goals, and the dark, enclosed box of concrete behind it would lead only to death. How to get through the glass and return to its habitat? This was the impossible problem the moth was facing.

In order to address the correct problem– which for the moth was: How to get around the glass and return to its habitat?–the moth would have first had to have posessed some understanding of what glass was. Absent this critical knowledge, the moth was left with a set of all bad choices, as is the case for people facing problems involving factors beyond their knowledge and control.

Obviously, I was trying to help this creature, but the moth didn’t see it that way. It saw my actions as a threat, so it did what it thought was best for it. And maybe that was what was best for the moth, for the time being. Through forces of the universe far beyond its control, it found itself in an unfortunate situation, and that situation sent it into life preservation mode. It needed to calm the fuck down.

As an outside observer with knowledge of the delicate consistency of moth wings, an understanding of glass, and of insect cognition to some extent ( I used to work in a government entomology lab), I recognized that I might be in a better position to help the moth than it was suited to help itself. Moreover, I was now the moth’s only hope.

It was up to me, so how best to help it? I thought of what some people might do:

Some people would kill it. They would kill it simply because it was a bug, inside. It was just a moth, and there are millions of them. To some, the death of a moth would seem inconsequential. On a different day, it might have to me.

Others would kill it because they enjoy harming things that are weaker than them, because it makes them feel more powerful. Like a game where violence earns you points, or a country where you’re born into royalty and being ruthless to the poor gives you klout. I will never relate to this.

Many, I suspect, would keep swatting at it with the paper to shoo it out, and maybe would accidentally kill it or injure it. Or grab it with their oily hands, rendering its wings useless. What a life then. And what a shame when people with the best of intentions wind up harming the object of their goodwill efforts. We do this to each other constantly. You can hold a butterfly and want to preserve its beauty so hard that you crush it to death, because in your brutish selfishness you can’t gauge your impact on a creature much more delecate. You can do this with a woman too.

Still others would forget about the moth, because it’s a moth and who cares? Who cares enough to think about it for a minute, let alone write an essay about it? This would also result in its death since it had now given up all hope and had resigned itself to life on the other side of the glass, unable to move.

I almost forgot about the moth. My roommate was on his way home and I wanted to cook him dinner, so when I left the moth to chill I got distracted with my own life and forgot about this life-or-death situation on my window. I wouldn’t have killed it, but my negligence would have resulted in its death all the same, and a much slower one at that. Luckily when dinner was ready and I was waiting for my roommate to finish a phone call and come eat, I noticed the moth, still huddled there in the same place.

Finally, I got a glass and I slid a paper under it, and I set this unlucky or lucky (or both) creature free. At first it clung to the rim of the glass, no longer trusting its own perception. So I gave it a shake. “Be free,” I whispered to it.

I didn’t have to help the moth. Nobody has to help anybody. Many people live in a state of convenient obliviousness, not recognizing when another is in need of help, let alone knowing the correct course of action to effectively provide help. I think that’s probably the most adaptive trait for living in New York. Being aware, I assure you that the suffering is deafening here. I helped the moth because once I became aware of its predicament, I couldn’t ethically let it die, when it was so easy for me to help it live.

You can’t help everyone. But, once you become aware that someone needs your help, if you can help them, you should.

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