When I was a little girl, eight years old or so, my mom bought me a ladybug farm. I think she got it at the annual craft fair that was held in the wide, echoey hallways of our church, which, in its secular days, was an outlet mall. My ladybug farm was really just a bit of metal screen curved over and stapled to a piece of wood with a small, hand-lettered sign that designated it as a farm specially for ladybugs.
I’m not sure why it was called a “farm,” as I didn’t intend to grow any ladybugs there. I just wanted to capture them. And so, ladybug farm in hand, I went hunting in our yard and surrounding neighborhood yards.
Of course, ladybugs aren’t difficult to hunt. They just kind of sit there, and even when they fly away, they don’t get very far. Soon enough I had a farm full of ladybugs, at least two dozen or so.
The thing about farming ladybugs, though, is that once you capture them, they mostly just crawl around. My ladybugs clung to the metal screen, begging for release, and I watched them until I got bored, which happens quite quickly when you’re eight. I set my farm on my bedroom dresser and moved on to more exciting things, like reading The Baby-Sitters Club.
When I returned to my farm the next day, all of the ladybugs’ previously brilliant red shells had faded to a disconcerting greyish color, and a buggy, earthy smell like wilted daisies rose from the cage. I had no idea what ladybugs ate, so I put some blades of grass in the bottom of the cage. By late afternoon it was clear the ladybugs weren’t going to survive much longer in that cage, so I dumped them out into my yard. None of the ladybugs were moving. My yard became a ladybug graveyard, my farm a ladybug death chamber.
The disturbing thing about all of this is that I don’t think I felt any regret or guilt over what happened to those poor ladybugs. Not, at least, until I was walking my dog two evenings ago right after a rainstorm, and I caught that exact ladybug smell rising from a tree in my neighborhood. My heart broke, twenty years later, for the reckless ladybug genocide of my youth.
I told my best friend Sarah about it last night. She works for Child Protection Services. She said that she thinks children don’t understand death or pain. They feel pain, of course, but they don’t spend any time wondering about its source or working through it the way adults do. This makes them incredibly resilient, but it also makes them careless and shockingly insensitive. It deprives them of compassion.
It would follow, then, that compassion doesn’t come naturally to us–rather, it is a learned behavior, one that develops only through the conscious experience of pain, which grows one’s ability to empathize with others who are in pain.
I felt pain in my childhood, of course. My parents’ divorce was painful. My dad was never around. But I expended a lot of energy denying it, stuffing it down inside of me, pretending that life was normal and happy. I hated when my mom would try to talk to me about it. I just wanted everything to be fine.
One day in fifth grade, a few years after my dad moved out, my art teacher said something cruel to me, and I came back to home room hysterical. My teacher asked to talk to me while the other kids went to recess, and when they had all left the room she looked me in the eye and asked me what was going on at home. I looked back at her, tears streaming from my eyes, and said everything was fine at home; I wasn’t upset about that; I was upset about art class.
I wouldn’t recognize the pain from my parents’ divorce, the hole my dad left in my life, until almost fifteen years later. And it only happened then because I had found myself in such a mess that I didn’t know how to get out of it without the help of a therapist.
I wish I could say that keeping a ladybug farm was the worst thing I did before I developed compassion, sensitivity, empathy. But it’s not. It’s not even close. There were times I worried I was capable of murder, given the other atrocities I was clearly capable of. I was sleepwalking, completely oblivious to the pain I was creating. I was selfish and ignorant.
It took pain, unignorable, searing, heartbreaking pain, to wake me up.
And now I look around and see pain everywhere. I see it in the cricket trapped inside my office that I put into a cup and took outside. I see it in the eyes of oil-covered pelicans. I see it in the faces of people everywhere, people going to work, people holding signs on street corners, people chewing their food in restaurants. I see it on the news. I see it in the pages of the books I read. There is so much pain. So much that sometimes I think it’s a miracle any of us gets out of bed in the mornings to face all of the possible pain that will come that day. So much that I literally can’t catch my breath when I let myself take it all in.
I’ve caused a large percentage of this pain. It’s unraveling now as I type. It will continue to unravel far into the future. And all I have left to say is I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.