I watch a lot of nature shows on television. Which is to say I know that, drop for drop, the venom of the box jellyfish is the world’s deadliest. And I know the great white shark has the most powerful bite force. And I know that, each year, no animal on earth is responsible for more human deaths than … the mosquito.
I’ve amassed all kinds of fun facts over the years, watching animals on television. For example …
Ever notice what nature tends to do with vulnerability or weakness in an animal? It attacks it! Executes it. Kinda creepy.
For example, fish are always swimming around schooling piranha. Happily, mind you. With impunity. But should one of fish begin to swim erratically, then piranha immediately shout out “Yippee,” and turn the unlucky fish into a macabre piñata. Except the piranha don’t really take turns. More of a free for all. And they are not blindfolded. And they use teeth instead of a stick. And candy does not fall out of the fish.
Hyena can be on vacation, playing Parcheesi under an acacia tree, fat and happy. Bellies gorged. But, should one of them look up and see a limping wildebeest, the vacation is over. It’s a federal law that hyenas have to kill anything that limps. Even if they are not hungry.
Vulnerability and weakness triggers attacks in the animal kingdom. And in marriages. And with aging parents. And in rearing children. And any place where children play together. And wherever there is an American electoral process going on.
I’m saying human beings have an instinct to attack vulnerability, too.
Think about it. Ever notice how, when someone comes to you with the naked vulnerability of a heartbroken apology, your first instinct is to escalate your hostility? Yeah boy! When someone you care about comes limping over, anguished, to humbly account for wrongdoing, your first impulse is to make sure they’ve suffered enough. You gotta get your pound of flesh. It’s your job to make sure imperfect human beings are served copious helpings of shame because, as everybody knows, people do better if they feel shameful enough. Not to mention, it’s just gleeful and ego-affirming to watch people squirm after you impale them, alive, like an insect on a pin in biology lab.
“You’re damn right you’re sorry!”
“Words are cheap!”
“It’s too late to be sorry!”
“That doesn’t make it better!”
Yeah, the first thing you wanna do when someone opens their heart to you in sincere remorse is to throw a cup of acid into their vulnerability. Humiliate them. See if you can get them to cough up their soul. Tons of fun, righteousness.
Here’s a tried and true political tip: If you hold public office, and people from the other party say to you in soothing, encouraging tones how all you need to do is to tell the truth and apologize … run away screaming. It’s a trap.
It takes such colossal courage to account for wrongdoing in important relationships, precisely because doing so makes us utterly helpless and vulnerable to the other. When my eldest son was but four years old, I remember him getting into trouble with his mother. She did not shame him, humiliate or degrade him! His mother took him to task – gently, firmly, clearly and appropriately. Yet it was still so awful and hard for him to have disappointed her that he suddenly pleaded aloud, “Mama, can’t you be sorry for something too?”
Mercy is a sublime human virtue. Becoming human means putting a bridle on the animal instinct to attack vulnerability. It means that, when our antagonist has dropped his sword and shield, bows before us and asks for another chance, we give a “thumbs up.” We allow sincere remorse to gentle us instead of provoke us to increased aggression.
In the Hebrew creation myth, Adam and Eve disobey God and realize, much to their humiliation, that they are naked. They cover their nakedness with itchy, coarse fig leaves and then hide from God in a tree. They are ridiculous.
God shows up. And, yes, there are consequences for the disobedience. Difficult consequences. But even the consequences are wrapped in mercy. The last thing God does is give Adam and Eve soft animal skins to wear. In compassion, he lets them cover their nakedness. He probably even averts his eyes while they are changing out of their fig leaves.
That was nice of God.
(Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)