We sat on my brother’s tiny urban porch, in the bright sun, six stories above the street. A fly lit on the rail, lazily exploring.
I extended my hand towards the fly, thinking “You’re so beautiful, so great, come visit me.” Over and over again, I repeated the thought in different words. The fly turned around, walked to the edge of the rail, and hopped onto my hand.
My brother saw! But he wasn’t skeptical and he wasn’t astonished. Just intrigued.
Nervous, I looked behind little boxes, and found three more. Little wiggling rice grains with black mouths, doing the only thing they could: seeking food. One by one, I carried them to the big compost bin.
The compost bin: where lost, starving beings enter a world of riches. These babies would be fat, flourishing animals in a self-contained world, sustained in their life cycle for generations.
The whole event was odd. The counter had been spotless, clear of crumbs and sticky spills. All food items had been stashed safely in closed containers.
Some pregnant mother had laid her eggs in desperation, with no food in sight. I wondered at that mother: Was she close to death? Despairing of ever finding her way back outdoors? Why did she go against all instinct and expose her babies to danger?
I couldn’t get her out of my mind.
All over the world, people raise children in terrible conditions: in refugee camps, slums, cities racked with sickness or violence. Why? They have hope. Not hope as a mere feeling, thought, or idea. Not necessarily a soaring optimism, or an ability to imagine possibilities. Just the will to keep on going.
Death drives the will, says philosopher Martin Heidegger. Death hovers at our shoulder. When we look at it directly, we despair; we act to avoid despair. On the contrary, says Emmanuel Levinas; life drives the will. In a desperate moment, we act so life can continue.
Might this be a mere philosophical difference? A look, through different lenses, at a multifaceted experience? Maybe the fly experienced both despair for herself and hope for her children. Either way, she thought, I’ve got to do something.
Yes, I have been told: it may be disrespectful to humans to speak of insects as moral beings. But it is certainly instructive. Aesop tells us: the ant teaches industry; the bee teaches community. Perhaps the fly — this one at least — teaches perseverance. She glanced at hope, glanced at despair, and kept on flying.