To Kill a Cockroach

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The house I live in has a mild cockroach problem, and late one night, I saw a huge one crawl across the hallway floor and into the open door of one of my roommates. I told her he was in there and advised her to get the bug spray.

Apparently, we have no bug spray.

And of course, she didn’t want to go in there herself and kill it with her shoe because she’s afraid of bugs. So, I was forced to go after him to make sure my roommate would be able to sleep that night. I think bugs are interesting and cool enough, but I’ve never liked the idea of the “dirtier” ones crawling on me or my things. It was especially uncomfortable for me imagining the process of having to kill one with a shoe. I was so used to just spraying cockroaches with bug spray that is was actually very unnerving to have to kill one by my own hand. The discomfort lied in the physical connection; the energy of the cockroach’s pain and death was directly, physically connected to me. For a moment, I tried to think of trapping him in a container. The poor guy, it’s not his fault, I thought aloud. But I was under pressure to hurry to get rid of him before we lost him, so I just let the idea go.

It took me some time after following him around the room to work up the nerve to tell him I’m sorry and actually come down on him with the shoe. Even then I was too hesitant, so when I threw the shoe down (trying to avoid [the inevitable] contact), it only injured him, and he was still trying to clumsily scurry away from the danger. I apologized again and slammed the shoe on him a second time, this time keeping my hand on the shoe for just that brief moment of contact before needing to let it drop again. The poor cockroach was on his back with part of his white guts emerging from his exoskeleton and his few unbroken legs shaking in the air. I kept telling him I was sorry, and now I simply wanted to crush him quickly so he wouldn’t have to suffer like he was. As I smashed him with the shoe a final time, I couldn’t get out of my mind the image and sound of his little body and legs crushing under it, and how my hand could feel his plump, little form as he died.

I gathered a large wad of paper towels (again, so I wouldn’t feel him) to pick his broken body up from the room. I felt compelled to take him outside and give him a proper burial; it seemed to add insult to injury to just toss him and the wad of paper into the trash can. I laid his broken pieces on the dirt among the bushes and vines, taking some leaves for ceremony to place on top of him, in some bizarre hope that he would forgive me and the bad energy would leave. I returned to the house nearly compelled to cry — either for what I had done to him or for how much he suffered.

It sounds like a terribly stupid story to be so hung up on, but I really think a lot of important things are tied to it. For one, the nature of war. People have written extensively on the changing nature of warfare, particularly led by the United States. It’s a really significant thing when the destruction of human beings and their environment is reduced to little more than a video game session. The soldier doesn’t have to see the victims’ faces, feel his hands squeezing, stabbing, shooting, bombing the life out of them. Sure, it’s too risky to the soldiers life to fight directly like this, but more importantly, it’s also too personal. Military commanders know the implications of this well. And I know it’s definitely easier to let a magical spray kill an insect from a couple feet away than for me to crush it with my own hands.

This experience also touches on the solemnity and sacredness of death. Very real, physical energy remains after a struggle, a murder, a death. Our ancestors understood the need to cleanse places where a person had lived and died, to rework those vibrations and energies. When warriors returned, they had to go through intense ceremonial, psychological, spiritual cleansing before they could return; they had to make sure not only that they were healed themselves after their experience, but also that they did not bring bad spirits and bad energy to the community.

Humans are also just one species of a greater ecosystem of balanced, mutually affecting energies. Killing other creatures is just as serious an undertaking as killing people. Our ancestors expressed the deepest gratitude and respect for the animals they hunted or fought against, and never wasted what they hunted and harvested. In view of that, I don’t think it’s an over-reaction to feel serious anxiety about killing a cockroach, or that it’s overly sentimental to watch out for ants while walking or trap a wasp in a container and let it outside.

Moreover, I think if more people were forced to stand face-to-face with that which they destroy, we’d all probably have a very different environmental policy. I’d like to see the CEOs of BP hold a pelican in his hands and pour oil down its throat; or Shell serve oil in drinking water to a Nigerian child; or a timber company employee go out into the rainforest with a club to beat down hundreds of birds and mammals before letting the falling trees do the work for them; or an industrial fisherman go to the homes of the children of poor families across Southeast Asia to tell them they won’t be eating because what’s left of their fish is being taken and sold in the West.

Certainly, we can’t go round letting pests, rats, and cockroaches roam free in our houses, let alone sit idly by when about to be attacked by, for example, a lion. There are times when we may need to completely fumigate a house, which is fine. The problem lies in telling ourselves those creatures are meaningless vermin — one in a million. Because a human is one in a million too. Other creatures care about their children and have the will to survive just as much as any human. In doing what we need to do to survive and live well, it would just be nice not to forget our place in the universe.

For more perspective, talk to the ant.

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One thought on “To Kill a Cockroach

  1. more than i could ever have hoped for. thank you, emily. i always ask myself what my kuleana is. kuleana means both right and responsibility. i have a responsibility to this aina, which is now a global aina, to care for it. but i also have a right to live in it as comfortably as i can, without displacing anyone/anything, as much in harmony as humanly possible (or humanely possible). do you know of joseph campbell? look him up online. i’ll try to get one of his videos to show in class. campbell went around the world and observed how and why cultures developed their creation stories or myths. one of the things he found in common among native cultures was their relationship to the food they ate. he found, for example, that plains indians developed a relationship with their prey. when they hunted, they asked the herd to give them one or two of the older or weaker animals so that the people might live. in return they promised to not slaughter more than they needed. when they encountered a herd, there was always one or two that signaled they were the ones, and so the indians took them and in this way culled the herd of the weaker members. and ceremony was always done to honor those who had ‘agreed’ to serve the purpose of perpetuating the tribe. the people thanked the animals for being their food and giving them life-energy. this kind of understanding of who and where we are in the cycle of life is what human beings seem to have forgotten, for the most part. it’s not fun to kill animals for food. it’s necessary. and there’s a direct correlation–this death equals life for us. i had asked in class a couple weeks ago if people felt that human beings were mentally unbalanced, if you recall. i asked that because i think human beings have taken themselves/ourselves out of the natural cycle of life. we no longer respect the animals or plants that we kill to eat. we don’t have any relationship at all with our food. worse, we don’t mind killing for fun, for profit, out of boredom, etc. we seem to be de-volving. it’s as if all of humankind is afflicted with a disease that leads us toward suicide, as the behavior we exhibit appears to be extremely psychologically unhealthy. when/how did that happen? i don’t know. but here and there are pockets of folks who recognize that pathology. hopefully these are the ones who are evolving to a higher level. btw, have you read ‘ishmael’ yet? the author tries to explain this issue. ok, back to the roach. the roach has life and we have evolved over time along with it. i know you know that if human beings were stupid enough to kill ourselves off en masse, insects would rule. they already rule. we’ve just been able to keep some places for ourselves by forcing them out of ‘our’ space. michael pollan, in the TED video, tried to explain this a bit. the roach is yucky inside our space. it has the whole rest of the world to live in. the house (we assume) is our space. roaches and bugs are like ‘dirt’–out of place (profane in the sanctity or sacredness of our living space). we have every right to kill, remove, or in any way get rid of this intruder. it is our kuleana. yet, we recognize that the roach is also part of that world out there called aina, and thus it has a right to live, too, and we have a responsibility to care for it as part of our aina. we have inner conflict. cognitive dissonance. what to do? we respect the sacredness of our space, because to us it truly is sacred, and we remove or kill the intruder. i know i’m just going on and on, but i’m glad you have inner conflict, as most people wouldn’t give it a second thought. i have conflict, too, esp. with big spiders. so what i do is find a towel, toss it on the bug, wrap it up and take it outside. spiders do some good, so i’m happy with setting a spider free. roaches? i don’t know what good they do, but they must serve as food for some other creature, so i toss the roach out the door, too, and let him fend for himself. lots of words here, yeah? but much food for thought, also. thank you for posting.

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