Lately, the ethics of cleaning have been getting me down.
When I was a kid, I had no problem, whatsoever, killing spiders. I remember my older sister calling me into the bathroom to deal with them. “Diana, there’s a spider in here,” her edgy voice would relate. And I would take pride in my fearlessness, as crushed the life out of one more unsuspecting arachnid.
As I neared adolescence, I lost my taste for being the brave hero who rescues the damsel and kills the dragon. I began to wonder: Just what had the dragon done to deserve such treatment anyway? So, instead of continuing my role as the death squad, whenever I happened on any manner of insect or arachnid, I patiently caught it and escorted it outside.
At some point, this time consuming work became impractical, and I then adopted the tactic of simply letting them alone. I have nothing against spiders. They don’t scare me or freak me out. In fact, they are something of a patron for those of us engaged in the needle arts—no crazy quilt is complete without a spider embroidered on it for luck. On the other hand, I don’t particularly like the live ones crawling on or toward me, so I made a deal with them: they’d stay out of my immediate space, and I wouldn’t go out of my way to molest them in theirs.
I had generalized my spider policy to all creepy crawlers (with the exception of ticks, who let’s face it really are out to get us), so that when the ants came and tried to take over our kitchen, I tried not to notice. I let my mother conduct, first benign and then more aggressive, attempts at coercing their departure. I looked the other way when she started washing them down the drain. I tried not to imagine their tiny screams as they circled through endless pipes to an undoubtedly ignominious end. I let my mom be the bad guy who, with no other options, finally sprayed the ants—ostensibly because I am extremely sensitive to nasty chemicals like bug spray, but I knew I was indulging in avoidance. I could no longer maintain a spotless conscience. I was just as guilty of genocide as she. “I was just following orders” or “I had no idea what was going on” were not going to play at the arthropod Hague. But had these indeed been war crimes? There had been no malice behind any of my mother’s actions. She told me wistfully, “I explained to the ants that they had to leave, and if they didn’t, I would have to kill them.”
The ignorance is bliss strategy blown to hell, I now have a choice to make as I trundle through the house with my trusty vacuum: to suck or not to suck. If I don’t think about it, I’m fine: “La, la, la, just cleaning the house. Not hurting anyone, just clearing the house of dirt. Hm, hm, hm.”
But, all of a sudden, my cavalier attitude becomes a liability. “How dare you?” some voice within me that sounds a heck of a lot like Yahweh (the big, scary God from the Old Testament). “How dare you, not only kill God’s creatures, but also act as if you don’t even care?”
The voice knows he’s got me just where he wants me. I look at the next web. “There’s no spider there,” I think. “I won’t kill the spider; I’ll just clear the web.”
But the voice is cunning, “Oh, so it’s okay to destroy homes as long as you don’t take lives? Do you have any idea how long it took to make that masterpiece?”
I really don’t. It could have taken only a matter of minutes—but then what are human minutes to a spider? Oh, dear.
“Hey, Hurricane Diana, how much do humans like it when their homes are demolished in a ‘natural disaster’? Jeeze, your sister lives in New Orleans! You could have a little bit more sensitivity.”
I gulp hard at this. I consider the very large number of spiders that inhabit our house. Taking each one of them outside as I find them is going to be akin to a full time job. I sigh. “Okay, this one, I will put outside,” I think.
“Only this one???” the voice questions heartlessly.
“Oh, shut up!” I tell it, as I gently clasp the spider in my hand.
This bit is tricky. Experience has taught me that spiders in these situations don’t necessarily clue in to the notion that you’re trying to save their lives and, therefore, make the venture as difficult for you as arachnid-ly possible. They run away from you. They scamper up your arm. They parachute off your hand. And before you know it, you can’t even see the little sucker—which, in hind-sight, was probably the spider’s plan all along. At least, when this happens, I can make a tenuous peace with my inner conflict: “Well, I tried,” I tell myself resignedly.
Recently, when I finally did get an uncooperative spider outside, I contemplated what this might mean for him/her. Had I now separated him from his entire family? Would she never again see her children? All of this became moot as I deposited the spider on the back step, and it . . . immediately ran back toward the house.
Maybe this is a game they play. “Let’s see how neurotic we can make the human! Hee, hee, hee.” If it is, I hope they’re having fun, because I am most definitely not. And I have to admit to you, here and now, that although I am a tree-hugging dirt worshiper, more often than not, I kill the spiders. I suck them up with the vacuum cleaner, which is probably not the most humane way of killing anything, but there it is.
Some days ago, I read a wonderful poem called Fireflies by Cecilia Woloch in which she cops to “not being Buddhist enough to let insects live in my house”—so, apparently, I am not alone in my dilemma. I am, thankfully, not a Buddhist—otherwise, knowing me, my cognitive dissonance might get really out of hand in these situations.
I once met a Buddhist who would not let her cat kill mice because she felt it would hurt the kitty’s chances of trading up in her next reincarnation. I identify two possible fallacies in this line of reasoning: one, being a cat can be pretty sweet if you live with the right people, how do we know that feline-hood isn’t just a step away from nirvana? And two, it seems cruel and disrespectful to deny a cat her true nature.
On the other hand, I can see the opposing argument: don’t well-meaning humans have to struggle to deny their true natures every day? Aren’t we required to in order to rise above the deep-seeded instincts that tell us to defend ourselves and our territories any cost? Or are our true true natures purer and high-minded than that? Or is, perhaps, my true nature a combination of aspects—the base, earthbound one and the spiritual, airworthy one? And, most importantly, which one of these should be dealing with the gosh darn spiders?
I don’t know what the “right” answer to this is, but I settle for a little bit of both. I do kill spiders because I think that, in general, my home is happier and healthier without them. And, although it seems meaningless and very probably is, I apologize each time my vacuum’s hose finds a new web. Perhaps there is something better waiting for them. Perhaps, we, as humans, kill spiders so that we may learn again and again that destruction is a necessary part of life. Perhaps, by becoming the compassionate, mindful destroyer, we learn more about the true nature of God.
If you’d like to read Fireflies in its entirety, you can find it here: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/08/02
If you’d like to know more about the author of this lovely poem, go here: http://www.ceciliawoloch.com/