Two weeks ago my daughter Julianna found a caterpillar. She and my wife then collected leaves and twigs and made a little mini-habitat for it in this mesh "butterfly tube" we bought for this exact purpose. So every day Julianna excitedly checked the butterfly hut to see how the caterpillar was doing. A couple days later the caterpillar wove itself into a cocoon. You can imagine her four-year-old excitement as she eagerly awaited the arrival of the moth or butterfly.
The whole thing really was very cool--watching nature takes its course, and all that.
So Monday the moth arrived and Julianna was thrilled. Now it was time set it free. Hooray!
She sat on the front steps, unzipped the butterfly hut, and gave the newborn moth its first taste of freedom. It fluttered out into the world for the first time, past the Buddha statue in my flower garden, and up to the side of the house.
Just then a bird spotted it, swooped down, and ate the moth! I'm not joking; I couldn't make this up. The moth hadn't lasted more than twenty seconds outdoors before its life ended.
I felt awful; I couldn't help but feel responsible. If we hadn't let the moth go at that exact moment, maybe it would have survived. But for how long? I won't pretend to know the lifespan of a moth, but my vague memory of seventh grade Science class tells me that it's brief, like a week.
Or maybe we shouldn't have bug-napped the poor caterpillar in the first place. But then again, who's to say it would have survived in the wild on its own? Nature is a tough place; bugs die all the time.
I'll never know the answer to these questions because life is unpredictable. Death can come at any moment, as it did for our little moth.
Who the hell knows what's going to happen next? It's the Buddha's first noble truth: life, death, and everything in between is suffering. Nothing's certain. Talk about existential anxiety.
For me, this example of the moth, captured in all it harshness and brutality, is a great metaphor for life. Our lives may be longer and more complex than the moth's, but in a fundamental way they're the same.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: withrow.