Robert (gurdonark) wrote,


I think that there is a mindset I'll refer to as "mayfly mindset". It's that feeling that one's whole life should be leading up to some glorious shining achievement. The mayfly is a term applied to a wide variety of rather common insects, which are especially prevalent in the midwest. Most of the mayfly's life is spent on the bottom of the lake, in its immature "nymph" stage. On the bottom of the lake, it has a rather full life, but by no means a glamorous life. But those "in the know" know that the prelude is merely, well, prelude. Mayflies become adults in the Spring and early Summer, and an adult mayfly is a joy to behold. Mayflies have long green bodies, and elliptical translucent green wings. They appear in large gaggles in full glory, each species coming out at the same time. An adult mayfly is a really cute thing--very aerodynamic, a really jaunty look--a thing of splendor. The phase lasts but a few days. Many species of mayfly lack any mouth or digestive tract in their adult phase--they are intended to flit about gracefully for two or three days, reproduce, and then depart this mortal coil, having accomplished their one great task.

I think that sometimes people wish they were mayflies. It's so useful to imagine oneself as bound for some incredible mission. Sure, one thinks, most folks are eaten by sunfish, but if I can just make it through, I'll be this incredible visionary adult. But people follow a different evolutionary course. We don't have mayfly moments, other than those moments we create for ourselves. Even when we imagine we are adult mayflys, delicate things of beauty who will exist only for the day, we are usually instead odd primates, playing an interesting game with ourselves. Mayflys are designed to go out in a burst of glory. We're designed for more mundane pursuits.

The insect kingdom has such rich metaphor. I love the analogy of the ants, who show a lot of human characteristics, combined with a lot of characteristics which are entirely and weirdly inhuman. But it can be possible to carry this too far. For example, some early research suggested that scorpions, when confronted by a ring of fire from which it was impossible to escape, would sting themselves into oblivion, committing suicide. The surrealist film maker Bunuel incorporated this into a film. But a lot of recent research strongly suggests that this "suicide reaction" was entirely misinterpreted, and that scorpions don't kill themselves at all. Another line of studies suggest that scorpions are immune to their own venom in any event. The scorpion is less human than the theory went.

It's hard sometimes to live mundane little lives, as if we are just members of a troupe of primates, occupying unimportant little niches. But I'm not sure that the remedy is to emulate the mayfly--or the scorpion. I think that whatever meaning life holds for us must be available to all, whether one is "important" or "trivial".

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