When I was seven or eight I raised white rats. They often crawled under my shirt; I loved feeling their tickling toes as they scuttled across my shoulders, along the nape of my neck, and onto my head. They weren’t rats to me. They were like downy pet mice, overgrown.
Then one terrible night a mother in my white rat family went insane and killed all the babies. It was my fault, although it had been an accident. My two mother rats gave birth almost simultaneously to 13 offspring. One day, closing the cage door too quickly, I caught the neck of one mother in the door and she died. I felt terrible, for my pet’s death and for my culpability.
The next morning I hurried down the cement steps to our back patio, where the rat cage sat under the living room window, to check on my pets. What I saw has never left me. Half eaten baby rat bodies bloodied the cage floor, some sawn in two like gruesome casualties of a plane crash, chewed bits dangling from tiny body parts. Other babies, their noses protruding, shrunken but elongated from near suffocation, staggered hideously around the cage.
The surviving mother, driven mad, was running from side to side. Unable to cope alone, she was killing the brood. Did I scream? I don’t remember. I cried.
This was my first encounter with the horror that is part of nature, and with the knowledge that even animals can feel overwhelmed to the point of despair and insanity.
Nature is frequently brutal. At my home in Indiana I planted crocus to brighten early spring. Rabbits, ever prolific, gnawed my crocus to stubs before they ever bloomed. Then, a large hawk descended on the neighborhood and two mother foxes dug dark holes in a gulch behind our house, made burrows, and bore kits. Within a year, they killed every rabbit. That spring, my crocus survived. Bunnies are resilient, though. When the hawk and foxes went elsewhere looking for new food sources, the rabbits returned. Soon enough, so did the hawks.
Predators come, take, and leave when the takings are diminished. Like bunnies, the resilient may bounce back. It is a hard world though, and we sometimes wonder if we are among the resilient.
The younger of two sisters, I remember my anxiety as a child at the dinner table. When would I get my share? Would there be enough? Seeking my share first; seeking the bigger share. Anxiety driven dinner manners. The fear that we won’t get “enough” infects us all.
We learn to manipulate to get more. We rape the earth, despite its consequences. We become the predators.
Reinhold Niebuhr, a philosopher, theologian, and social activist who wrote from the 1930s-1960s, shed light on our capacity to be predators. A liberal who wanted to see greater justice in society, he also challenged the overly optimistic views of other liberals who argued that society was getting so much better it could be perfected.
In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr says that we oppress others most egregiously when we congregate, in our family, tribe, religion, nation, gender, society, profession, or international entity. “Serious sins are mostly communal sins,” he says, adding, “As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic, and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”
The group becomes both rationale and means—locus of power—to ensure that we, at least, and those in our group, have enough, even if others have very little or unquestionably not enough, a “not enough” often caused because someone has taken more than they truly need.
This planet has horror enough without our contribution. It can be pitiless, independent of our actions. But tragically people, exploiting the world, are among its most ruthless occupants. Humankind, the great predators. We “plunder, rape, poison, and kill this living system,” as Ian L. McHarg argues in “Man, A Planetary Disease,” “threatening our own extinction.”
We have added immeasurably to the pain, suffering, and despair of the creatures with whom we share this world. We have decimated nesting places, put barriers across migration paths, drawn birds to their death with our indiscriminate use of urban lights, poisoned and polluted their dwelling places, and contributed to the extinction of countless species.
By removing environmental regulations that protect arctic waters, national parks, coastal lands, and air and water sources, we endanger our children’s world. We have done great harm, but we can reverse our course. We do not need to add more to the suffering of the world.
Life abounds with sorrow, but it also swells with goodness and beauty.
It is a broken, damaged world, yet the glory of God still glows within. We can chose whether we add to the brutality of the world or not.
We are not insane. Not yet.