Mar 282021
 

While unanswered questions are challenging, I wonder if an unquestioned answer could doom the species. Be forewarned, the slope I am about to ascend is so unbelievably slippery, I am frightened to even begin.

For the species Homo sapiens, the answer to most any threat is annihilation. The greater the threat, the more willing we are to use every resource, no matter its cost or unintended consequences to destroy it. Simply fending it off is inadequate. Total destruction is the unquestioned answer.

Does any other species do likewise? Others will do what they can to fend off enemies when under attack, but they use resources readily at hand, and their losses are often substantial; they generally lack the ability to create exhaustive deadly counterattacks. Over the past decade, tens of millions of ash trees (genus Fraxinus) have succumbed to the emerald ash borer. The species was not destroyed by this enemy, but its footprint was significantly reduced. Fraxinus did not muster resources to obliterate its enemy. Over many generations, it will likely develop, through mutations, an effective defense.

Imagine, for a moment, a species that could muster the necessary resources to destroy every threat it faced. Its footprint would continue to grow. As it did, it would require evermore resources. An expanding number of competing species would become threats, and inordinate resources would be put to the task of making sure they stayed out of the way of “progress.”

In reality, not much imagination is required. Enter Homo sapiens. We have a history of vanquishing enemies, those we dislike among our own species, as well as any that threaten the entirety of the species.

Suppose for whatever reason, Homo sapiens was able to defend itself against enemies with resources readily at hand, but never acquired the ability to create exhaustive, deadly counterattacks. Throughout history, viruses, plagues, even other species would have, like the emerald ash borer did to Fraxinus, kept our collective footprint dramatically smaller. Ironically, it is the size and density of the human population that made COVID-19 far more deadly. Because there are so many people, the virus was able to spread more quickly and mutate more effectively. I wonder, if there were 1 billion humans, rather than 7.8 billion, would the virus have had difficulty infecting us so broadly? Might we have had fewer infections and deaths? Might we have developed immunity more naturally and easily?

There is another, more serious irony that stems from the massive human population. A virologist recently predicted we will face a raft of new, as yet unknown, pathogens in the coming years. As we continue to slash rainforests and other natural habitats, demanding resources to feed our insatiable appetite for wealth, safety, and convenience, we will unleash them at ever increasing rates.

One unintended consequence of our refusal to question the annihilation of any and all threats is that we have become the pathogen that threatens every other species. I wonder if Mother Nature is trying to show us the wisdom of questioning our most sacred, frequently employed, and deadly answer.

It is, as I suggested, the most slippery of slopes.

Mar 132021
 

“I’m a burden to everybody,” she began when I answered the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “Everyone would be better off if I wasn’t here.” “Are you considering suicide?” I asked. She paused, and quietly admitted she was. I asked her first name and age, for familiarity and a bit of context. “I’m Sue (not her real name) and I’m almost 14.” It broke my heart that a person so young believes others would be better off if she ended her life.

I asked why she feels a burden to others. “I frequently get in trouble at school and it’s really hard on my mother.” When I asked for an example, she related the following: “We’re reading To Kill a Mockingbird in class and the author uses the ‘N’ word throughout the book. My teacher insisted that, given the time it was written, and to make the story real, it was necessary to use that word. That upset me. I raised my hand and asserted there should have been a way to write the story without the ‘N’ word. The teacher said I was wrong, sent me to the principal, and he called my mother.”

“I can see merit in both sides,” I replied, “but your teacher was unwilling to engage in a discussion?” “No. She just told me I was wrong.”

“If I asked your Mother, would she say you are a burden.” “Probably not, but even if she doesn’t say it, I wonder if she sometime thinks I am.”

Since the example she gave me was over an issue she felt was important, I asked if she also gets into trouble for things that may be silly or trivial. She said that seldom happens. “Most often I get into trouble because of something I believe is wrong. When I have something to say, and speak up, even my friends roll their eyes. I make everyone’s’ lives difficult”

“Would it be fair to suggest you try to make the world a better place?” I asked. When she admitted she did, a thought occurred to me. “I can’t recall his name, but a black congressman passed away recently who did change the world.” “Do you mean John Lewis?” she asked. I was stunned. “You’re 13 and you know of John Lewis?” She said she did but didn’t know too much about him. I told her that one of his favored principles was “Make good trouble.” I suggested she might be doing what John Lewis asked of each of us.

“People who change the world, often make those around them uncomfortable. It’s impossible to nudge the world in new directions without being a burden in some lives,” I suggested. “If you want to change the world, be prepared to make good trouble. If you study the lives of activists, I think you’ll find they made many people uncomfortable.” She told me she just might do that.

When she told me she felt better and was no longer considering suicide, even though I wanted to hear more from this inspiring young woman, we ended the call.

Author, educator and philosopher, Neil Postman once wrote, “Children are the living messages we send to a world we will not see.” If, in our few moments together, that young woman began to discover a sense of who she is, and who she might become, perhaps I was blessed to witness a budding John Lewis, Greta Thunberg, Stacey Abrams, or Malala Yousafzai. If, in my lifetime, I do nothing more than send that one message to a future I will not see, perhaps that is enough.