In the Fall, our crags are swarming with wasps. Their source is a mystery. It is rare to see wasp nests in the cracks and pockets in the limestone, and when found, the nests are no bigger than a newborn’s clenched fist. The volume of the Fall swarms doesn’t comport with the numbers seen over the Summer. The wasps in Fall also differ in quality from the busy, irritable creatures encountered in Summer. The Autumn wasps are less likely to sting, but they are also harder to shoo away. When threatened, they flare their wings and wave their antennae.
A bunker mentality seems to have taken hold of them, perhaps as a consequence of excessive introspection, depression even. In flight, they behave with no less aimlessness than when clinging to the stone. They waft from perch to perch in short hops, always staying within a few feet of the crag, extending the arc of their flight only if they encounter another intransigent insect where they would land. They are not hunting, and do not appear to engage in courtship or any other purposeful behavior in the course of their days.
To the climbers who persist at the crags through the cooling season, the wasps look a feckless lot. Some observers go so far as to advocate swatting the insects on principle, as the wasps have lost their purpose and are simply waiting to die. Why let them suffer?
The Grand Auger, who sacrificed the swine and read omens in the sacrifice, came dressed in his long dark robes to the pig pen and spoke to the pigs as follows: “Here is my counsel to you. Do not complain about having to die. Set your objections aside, please. Realize that I shall now feed you on choice grain for three months. I myself will have to observe strict discipline for ten days and fast for three. Then I will lay out grass mats and offer your hams and shoulders upon delicately carved platters with great ceremony. What more do you want?”
Then, reflecting, he considered the question from the pigs’ point of view: “Of course, I suppose you would prefer to be fed with ordinary coarse feed and be left alone in your pen.”
But again, seeing it once more from his own viewpoint, he replied: “No, definitely there is a nobler kind of existence! To live in honors, to receive the best treatment, to ride in a carriage with fine clothes, even though at any moment one may be disgraced and executed, that is the noble, though uncertain destiny that I have chosen for myself.”
So he decided against the pigs’ point of view and adopted his own point of view, both for himself and for the pigs also.
How fortunate, those swine, whose existence was thus ennobled by one who was at once an officer of the state and a minister of religion.
– Zhuang Zi as translated by Thomas Merton
The same sentiment applies to the wasps. Trivially, some of the wasps which a climber sees in Fall are foundresses of next Spring’s colonies. No one would question their having a meaningful existence, in wasp terms. They represent the sisters passed, of the colony that bore them and back down the line. When we say ‘meaning’ in regard to a creature’s existence, we imply just such a representation on the creature’s part. After all, meanings don’t have meanings, symbols do. When we speak of purpose in the same context, we refer to the relationship between the representation and the meaning behind it, with the purpose of the representation being to signify the meaning.
Next Spring’s founding females have a purpose: to represent their colonies of origin and so on, in the genes they express, the ova they carry, and the smells they remember. The colony is gone but the intention of the colony remains, represented by the heiress.
People are no different. We represent our backgrounds and their intentions. We try to live up to our potential, what we are born with and what we acquire by learning. For us, as for the wasps, this representation is always in the present, pulling at the intention groping behind it. The colony’s heiress begins her own take on her mother’s colony. Her ownership changes the intention a bit. Her smell is a little bit different. Depending on what confronts her in the Spring, she may recruit the help of her fellow survivors to start her nest or usurp another’s. No matter, the next generation will recall a different ideal in its turn. We too, will try to live up to the tales of the deeds of our ancestors (by blood or tradition), rather than the deeds themselves, and the tales of the tales and so on.
But where does all this leave the true left-overs, the workers who will soon die in the cold? For them, the colony is lost forever. They represent the end. No one could blame the human observer for imagining these insects as little Macbeths, with their petulant defense of limestone cubby-holes and their swarming a soliloquy pleading for release from the futile farce which their lives have become, maybe which their lives have been from the start.
Still, they fly. They utilize the behaviors passed to them as social insects in their new context. They sting if pressed. They taste the air for familiar scents. They seek the light and shade with the progression of heat through the day. For their part, they signify the heritage of social insects as much as the females who will survive the Winter. If they have lost anything by losing the meaning and purpose of their role in the nest, it wasn’t much.
All representations work this way and the losses associated with any loss of significance are no more than the losses a cipher suffers in moving from one equation to another. When we pose the question, “Why should we let them suffer?”, the wasps might answer us like little Mallorys rather than little Macbeths: “Because I’m here.” That is exactly what they are saying when they wave their antennae at an approaching hand.