I have an unusual job. Every weekend I clean cages and feed the snakes in a local nature center’s educational reptile room. Needless to say, dead things abound. Every once in a while I find something dead in its cage, like the bullfrog, floating gently in its lukewarm lily-pond, or the poor little lizard that died right under its heat lamp and got stuck to the floor. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part are the little white mice that I get out of the freezer and thaw for the snakes to eat. It never used to bother me, but I was just sitting poking the mice with the steel feeding tongs waiting for them to warm up when it hit me. They had whiskers. These sad, bedraggled dead creatures looked just like my 4th grade classroom pet. I still thaw the mice of course. What else are the snakes going to eat? But those whiskers get me every time.
The problem is, the world just isn’t set up right. Natural selection is a sterile, scientific concept, but do we ever think about what it really means? What it means is that some poor living thing always loses out to some other poor living thing, that life’s a horrible game where survival depends on winning. This is a fact, not a belief. Beyond that, the suffering isn’t even fair. Its not like the bad mice get gassed and the good ones get to keep on living. Bad things happen to good people all the time. I decided that I didn’t believe in cosmic justice when I was eight years old and moved from my beloved home in Iowa to Pennsylvania, a state where I had never been and knew no one. Those whiskers just sealed the deal.
I don’t believe in a larger, external justice, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe at all. I take heart from the idea that I dislike dangling those poor mice into snake cages. I believe in whatever it is that passes judgment and despairs that life isn’t fair. I suppose I believe in belief itself. One cannot, or at least I cannot, go on without hope, without some sense that, against all odds and despite all appearances, “somehow the right is the right/ that the smooth shall bloom from the rough,” as the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson so eloquently put it over 100 years ago. Although it may seem strange given my view of the world, I do believe in goodness, morality, and the common decency of man. I retain the belief in the individual, in individual compassion, love and understanding even though I have lost my faith in the way the world is structured. I believe in all these things with absolute faith, with greater power than I can express in words, but the question still remains, the same one that troubled Stevenson years ago. Is it enough?
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