It’s such a little thing, really. Over the last six months our house has been taken over by ants. I’m told by many these are “the joys of home ownership” – that this is simply what happens. We kill them and they move somewhere else. Spray, wipe, repeat (except when you finally cave in and call a professional).
A friend offered me a product that looked very much like a tube of toothpaste. It was a sugar-based gel that the ants would supposedly take back to the queen and it would slowly kill them all. I tried this, but it wasn’t nearly as satisfying.
These ants, for some reason, seem to congregate around watery areas. This means there is a quicker and much more satisfying solution when burning with unholy, ant-induced rage: open the floodgates of the sink or shower and send them to a watery grave. It may seem ridiculous, but once I moved past this rage I realized something profound was happening.
I drew more satisfaction the more ants there were. It was a feeling of victory. Even though I knew it would in no way dissuade other ants from invading the same spot tomorrow, it felt good – satisfying somehow. And then things got very dark. I caught myself wondering how these ants felt. Sure, they were to me a pest and a nuisance. But I also couldn’t get past the cartoon ant my son watches on his favorite PBS show and thinking about how we treat other living things.
Our capacity for cruelty is nothing new. Slate.com recently carried a story regarding a photo album of Saddam Hussein that shows the late dictator at his children’s birthday parties and relaxing with friends, all while committing systematic genocide of the Kurdish people. Similar artifacts from Auschwitz show officers relaxing, playing music and hosting lavish parties even as the air was thick with the ash of innocent lives.
To be honest, my wife laughed at me when I told her of my existential ant crisis. She said I was overthinking things, and she was probably right. Still, I wonder if there isn’t some truth in all of it. Sure, it’s just a few ants, but does it say something about my own capacity for cruelty?
Lent is a season for self-examination. I’ve got my own things I’m trying to avoid as I try to brace myself for the horror of Good Friday – the time when, as one writer says, “the ground at the foot of the cross became level for God, too.” Despite all the introspection, I had written off my remorse for the ants that still occupy my house – at least until I read the words of the late poet Lucille Clifton in her poem, “Cruelty.”
cruelty. don’t talk to me about cruelty
or what i am capable of.
when i wanted the roaches dead i wanted them dead
and i killed them. i took a broom to their country
and smashed and sliced without warning
without stopping and i smiled all the time i was doing it.
it was a holocaust of roaches, bodies,
parts of bodies, red all over the ground.
i didn’t ask their names.
they had no names worth knowing.
now i watch myself whenever i enter a room.
i never know what i might do.
Apparently someone else felt much the same way I do. Whether it’s ants or roaches, Lent affords us the opportunity to look within – to gaze deeply into the abyss of our own souls and wonder what we might and might not truly be capable of.
Listen to Clifton’s reading of the poem here.