What the Caterpillars Taught Me

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A few weeks ago, Darren and I had the lovely task of teaching canoeing to a group of girl guides. Their leader seemed like a great lady over email, so we were both pretty excited to go and do it. It was at a location we had never been to, so we were anxious to see the lakefront and meet the girls. We were also wondering how bad the caterpillars were, since the events the last few weeks at that camp had been cancelled due to them. There is a major infestation around Peace River!

Forest Tent Caterpillar

We arrived a little while after the group did and met the leaders and a few of the girls. After scouting the lakefront, which was reedy and impossible to work with, we made plans to go to another part of the lake the next day for all the actual canoeing. I did some instructing before supper — talked about the parts of a canoe and some basics — whatever I could do prior to going on the water.

The leaders were busily getting supper ready and corralling the girls, so Darren and I decided to help out by getting the campfire going. It wasn’t long before we had a nice little fire. The girls were, for the most part, on free time, and they played tag, “mantracker” and other games. A few came over and wanted to poke at the fire. Well, it wasn’t long before they were gathering caterpillars on their sticks and putting them in the fire.

I now know what a witness to bullying feels like.

I didn’t know what to do. It’s not like the girls were hurting an endangered species, but it still didn’t sit right with me. I had been amazed at the caterpillars everywhere and had been gently sweeping them off the benches, only to have them crawl back on in five minutes. They truly were everywhere — we had to do caterpillar checks before climbing in the tent, to make sure we wouldn’t bring any in. They had decimated all the trees and were just waiting to die, I guess… but dying in a fire on the end of a stick was not their destiny. But why didn’t I say anything about how I felt?

I think part of my paralysis was because the girls had seemed so sweet. From all we could see, and in what we saw for the remainder of the weekend, they were nice girls! But somehow it was fun to them to burn the caterpillars and watch them wriggle in pain.

Darren and I talked amongst ourselves, but neither of us spoke up and said what we wanted to say: “stop it. Those caterpillars of living things, so let them live.” I half-heartedly said things about the yucky smell it made, and I said to a couple of them that that was enough, but I wasn’t their leader, and I didn’t assume a role of authority — I had only met them a couple of hours before — so they didn’t really listen.

When the leaders came over and saw what was happening, they put a quick end to it, and the girls listened and stopped. They respected their leaders (it wasn’t hard to see why, these ladies were amazing) so they obeyed. But I was stuck wondering why I hadn’t spoken up more.

All the while, I had been thinking “where are the leaders? This isn’t okay! This is caterpillar torture!” I know, you might think it is ridiculous, but I’m a softie for all living creatures. I have even been known to let mosquitoes live, if they are bouncing up against a window and clearly not interested in biting me. I strongly believe that whatever the creature, cruelty, be it in the form of bullying or torture, is not okay, and I think that most people would agree, at least in principle. But look at the form it takes in our society!

– In many places, it’s just “a given” that some people will receive better treatment/service than others.
– In many places, kids are unkind and sometimes even blatantly threatening to one another.
– All over the world, animals that are supposedly pets are mistreated, not fed, watered or exercised sufficiently.
– All over the world, animals that are our food source are not cared for properly and not butchered with any sense of compassion.
– In some places, wild animals are captured and put in tiny cages for our viewing pleasure (zoos).
– Animals that we deem “pests” are killed en masse, without remorse.

I could go on, obviously, but I don’t want this article to turn into a rant about what’s wrong with the world.

Where are the Leaders?

I wonder how much abuse happens because someone is sitting on the sidelines, like I was, saying “where are the leaders? This isn’t okay!” Well, I’ve decided that we are all leaders and if I ever catch myself thinking that again, I am going to find a way to speak up immediately. The longer I wait, the harder it is to say anything, so I am not going to hesitate. I am going to try my best not to care what other people will think, and speak up anyways. If there are others who feel the same as I do, I may decide to band together with them… hmmm, have to blog about that another time.

I guess in some ways, my mildly-held pacifist beliefs were tested that day. I don’t believe in trying to force others to do something, and I am not a fan of trying to convince someone to change either. I am much more in favour of letting people live their own lives, with the consequences of their actions, and just helping in obvious ways that make sense without getting preachy or pushy (for example, serving on the volunteer fire department). I guess that’s why I don’t generally participate in activist rallies — I don’t necessarily think they work to create change and it seems a bit like leaving one crowd to join another. I’m a free thinker, which sometimes means I don’t relate to others very well, but I am okay with that. When those caterpillars were being tortured, however, my pacifism became a trap, and I felt like a mouse on a sticky pad — unable to move, unable to respond, unable to speak.

So, I’ve got to find a better model for intervening — pacifism might not be for me, and ordinary activism doesn’t quite fit either. Righteous indignation only works if you can pull off “righteous” or “indignant,” and I don’t do either very well! As usual, all the really effective ways of being true to myself are complex and can’t be labelled or summed up in a few quick words.

Ultimately, I think the main reason I didn’t stop the caterpillar torture was because I was too concerned with what others would think of my beliefs. I know they aren’t match up with mainstream society — most people would happily kill caterpillars! — and I was more concerned with conforming than being true to myself. Not being a weirdo. I was raised a weirdo, you know. We belonged to a “cult,” according to regular society. Perhaps now that I seem normal (those who know me, know I’m far from it!! :), I don’t want to be weird again. But what the heck! Isn’t weird the new cool? Well, it is for me!

I wonder if it would work to say, in a bullying circumstance, “you cannot do that around me. Now that I am here, you will have to stop what you are doing or leave.” Spoken calmly and clearly, I think it might work, and it might be the best way, for me, to be true to myself and speak up. I wonder if bullying in schools would decrease if teachers were able to act like real leaders, rather than being afraid to speak out because of the power parents and principals hold over them. Could one stop bullying single-handedly at school by intervening gently but firmly, so that all those kids paralyzed on sticky pads aren’t saying “where are the teachers? This isn’t okay!” (I’d love it if some of my teacher friends and followers weighed in on this!)

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