I pulled a writhing hummingbird-hawk moth from the grille of a massive pickup truck the other day. It was trapped in the meshy expanse of plastic chrome, its head jammed into a space it couldn’t quite get out of, wings flapping furiously and legs pushing with all their might.
At first I tried to free it with my fingers, but I feared I would pull him in half. The owner of the truck saw me as he got out and walked towards the bars. I walked away and found a small stick, then returned and used the stick to pry the bars of the grille apart until I could free the poor critter. He fluttered and flitted and tried his darndest to resume doing hummingbird-hawk moth things, like pollinating flowers and flying around making the world a more beautiful and alive place. He was stunned, likely critically, but I did what I could. I brought him to a wooded area with lots of detritus for camouflage and wished him luck.
Perhaps he had enough sustenance in his body and enough camo on his back to lay low and recover from the violent concussion of being smacked by something that literally weighs millions of times more than him. I know the feeling of being hit by a car and trying to figure out which way is up and what your purpose in life even is. And I’m a lot bigger than a moth.
A few days later, I was driving through a very different part of the country, nearly a thousand miles away from where I freed the little fella. Hummingbird-hawk moths dance in and out of the beams of my headlights, and no amount of erratic braking or swerving can save all of them. I wince at the thuds and splats, wondering about the cost of human progress. Would we start up our cars and head out on the road if we had to kill living things with our bare hands before we could drive? Do these roads which create an unnatural break in the forests and prairies and render every living thing deeply vulnerable and confused really provide a defensible service?
It is fascinating the ways that different species exist and turn the atomic building blocks of life into specific sentient forms. Each species is unique from the next, each plant and animal interacting with its surroundings in an endless chain of necessary interactions. I have always noticed this and felt a close kinship with the snails on the sidewalk and the herons wading in the water. I hurt for every earnestly striving soul, no matter how big or small. I think I have always known how risky it is to be oneself, and so I most admire the creatures who risk it all simply by existing. This sensitivity to the life force of the world has made my life extremely painful, but also extremely beautiful.
For the longest time, it made me the target of vicious attacks by angry and insecure mobs of groupthink, so threatened by my refusal to participate in their cruel games that they were reduced to terrorizing me for having my own compassionate preferences. The sting of childhood wounds reverberates in adulthood; we learn how to not be bullied, and we make that intuitive tradeoff our way of life. The concept that we should just “toughen up” has laid waste to untold millions of sensitive, beautiful lives. It is the childlike sense of brave vulnerability and infinite wonder which leads us to make art. Even the toughest and most bitter people like to turn on the TV or the radio to tune out for a while. I often wonder if the irony of their enjoying art dawns on them. Somehow, I doubt it.
I am trying to learn from the sensitivity and to give it enough safety and freedom to become something more than just a piquant bittersweet burden. Like a wildflower, it needs just the right mix of nature’s violence and nurturing to bloom. The system we are born into does everything it can to smooth and file our edges and to push us towards safe and repeatable outcomes. The human organism has grown quite good at making life physically comfortable, at distracting our minds so much that there is never a hollow space for thoughts.
In times of exhaustion and weakness, I often yearn for the comforts I’ve forgone in my vague pursuit of something different. It is only natural to desire success and stability, and perhaps to sacrifice one’s most nuanced ambitions in service of some easier path. But it is so unnatural to measure every minute and define its worth in dollars. I have grown to feel uneasy when I’m not doing something that someone told me to do or paid me to do; it is a daily struggle to rewire my mind to accept that the truest riches cannot be bought or sold. I’ve preached this for years, but the practice is a constant and imperfect battle.
It is recognizing the struggling moth and knowing that there is something we can do about it. It is easy to believe that our individual efforts are ultimately pointless in a sea of forceful human progress. It is totally logical to feel defeated by striving that has gone unrewarded thus far, to wonder if perhaps the only way to feel peace is to acquiesce. As an attentive and fleeting being, I always notice the dying breaths of the life force around me. I’ve seen so many creatures thrash and flail and ultimately accept their fates. I’ve seen so many more refuse to give up. My one-legged chickadee friend in Arkansas, whose daily visits I miss more than anything else about the home I had to give up because I couldn’t afford to keep it. The one eyed squirrel I met in the woods, who was clearly in immense pain as a result of its injuries, yet refused to quit finding nuts and chirping at its frenemies. The fish I’ve caught when I thought that fishing was a valid way to interact with our aquatic cousins, gasping hypoxically after fighting for their lives before I released them to fight another day. Bewildered by the experience they just had, yet utterly committed to eating the next bug with a trained leeriness that will enhance their chances at survival. There is a constant and noble struggle in the natural world which has always taught me that the most beautiful lives are deeply painful, but also wildly free.
Perhaps what I struggle with the most is finding that freedom. Freedom to be proud of what I’m building, freedom to build what I want to. Freedom to stick with my ideas when the world mocks them, to stay the course when my wounded human child brain begins to crave approval more than genuine expression. Freedom to make good friends with the pain, knowing that avoiding pain will only make it worse.
I don’t think that I am any more special than anyone else, but I am working hard to believe that I am as special as all the creatures great and small who I fight for every day. To tell stories without retreating the second they don’t resonate with people the way I wish they would, to tell stories when the world starts to demand that I have more money and more stability and more to offer its bottomless coffers.