On Saving a Moth
"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." —Albert Einstein
One morning recently, I noticed a small dark shape fluttering in the pool. I went over to investigate and saw that it was a large gray moth, desperately and barely clinging to life as water saturated her wings. Her energy was exhausted. I lifted her out and she clung the fabric of my dress. I bent my head and very gently blew down the length of her body, drying her with my breath for perhaps fifteen minutes. And then I raised her up in my hands and blew on the underside of her wings, learning in the process that what looked like two was actually four. I carried her on my cotton dress for a couple of hours, and she clung there, while I periodically applied the blow drier of my lungs and pipes. That little moth did not want to let me go! But I could not spend the day just moth-sitting, so I found her a place with just the right light and temperature and checked on her periodically.
In the late afternoon, I carried her out and set her on a piece of cloth on the windowsill. She hopped off the cloth and pooped. I’ve seen this over and over. No one wants to sit around in their own excrement (remember that someone was once there for you in these circumstances, cleaning your little leaky bottom. . . yes, this too is part of what we share as animals together on this planet).
I carried my now relieved moth friend, whom I’d named Louise, back to her safe place and she returned to her comatose state. I was beginning to think that Louise was dying slowly. She was still in that state when I went to sleep. I expected to carry her little corpse out in the morning. That, too, is something we animals share. I said goodnight to Louise, turned out the lights and was soon awakened by the buzzing of her wings. Oh, my little nocturnal was ready to fly! I caught her easily, carried her out into the dark. I waited. She hesitated. Just breathing together, and then I did a gentle two-open-handed toss and watched Louise soar out over the citrus orchard in bloom. I will never forget that moment, the buzzing of her wings receding, the scent of citrus blossoms. “Goodbye, Louise. Happy life!” I called out after her.
The world is full of big problems: threats of ecological collapse, political instability, ever-shifting threats of financial collapse. I worked for decades at the level of policy to address those very big problems, and here is something I learned along the way: all behavior is affectively motivated. It’s feelings that drive our actions. We humans have a lot of problems caused by our history of thinking about the world as a series of facts and functions, things to be counted and measured. But neither we nor any other animals care so much about facts and functions in reality, even though we think we should. It’s the quality of experience that matters to us, and to every animal. Do I like this and want more? Do I dislike this and want to change it? Psychologists call these “approach” and “avoidance” motivation, the most fundamental level.
Rescuing Louise engaged my affective capacities and enlivened me while enlivening her, because we share this experience of living, and we can make it better or worse for ourselves and each other. This is a kind of thinking we need to learn to use a great deal more than we have in the past, a kind of thinking that just might solve some of those big problems. So I will thank Louise for saving me for the rest of my life. And everyone I know who rescues animals says the same thing.