Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Maggot Theodicy

It was part of the cycle of errands of the afternoon, the first stop in a circuit of stops. First, recycling.  Then, the Salvation Army to drop off bags of outgrown clothes and a servicable old bicycle.  Then Harris Teeter.  Then home.  It was a hot Virginia summer day, and our old van's air-conditioning is on the fritz, but so it goes.  Windows down, the smell of outgassing dash vinyl and sweat, and it's just as summer should be.

The old rust-speckled van was full of stuff as I pulled into the bulk recycling station, bearing stacks of cardboard and paper products, the oversized consumer packaging detritus of six months of American life.  I popped open the van's rear hatch, and began to unload it, breaking down boxes and depositing them in the slot-maw of the recycling bin.  It's a satisfying task.

But then the stench hit, an overpowering odor of rot and decay.  It was the smell of death, of long dead flesh in the throes of decomposition.

I looked around for the source, expecting to see a dead animal, a raccoon or possum or squirrel.

It was none of those.  It wasn't anything I could identify, just a blackened, seething mass of what might once have been a hunk of meat wrapped in butcher's paper.  And seething it was, a roiling mass of maggots, the offspring of the flies that must have found this--thing--days before.  They tumbled from the sickly-rich decay by the dozens as I watched, dropping by their ones and twos onto the asphalt.

And I realized that all around where I was standing, there on the asphalt of the recycling center, there were hundreds upon hundreds of maggots, all writhing in wild agitation.  They were all dying.  It was a hot day, the height of a hot Southern summer day, and the asphalt was burning.  I could feel the heat of it through the soles of my shoes.  There they were, these tiny white-meat grains, shuddering and flailing and casting about madly in every direction.

But it was a large lot, and there was no shade to be found.  So they were roasting alive, these little fat glistening pale flecks of life.  Not that they were aware of the cause of their plight or the scope of their lives, not of anything other than a moment of pain followed by another.  They could not curse their fate, because such things are beyond them.  They just struggled for life, and died.

I watched for a while, pondering their banal, pointless suffering.  I could, I suppose, have picked them up, one after another, cupping a mass of squirming mealy flesh in my hand and carrying them to the shaded dirt ten yards to my right.

Why aren't you helping them, queried my internal Voight-Kampff tester, and I considered it for a moment.  I have been known to help worms off of hot sidewalks, because, well, I do.

There were too many, just too many of them.  It would have taken time and methodical patience, and to get to some, I'd have had to step on others.  What was to say that the dirt would not be filled with ants, for whom the maggots would make a quick meal?  And the world does not lack for flies.  It was just carnage, the carnage of random senseless striving.

But in that suffering, I could not help but see a reflection of our own human struggles, which on a cosmic scale are really not so much larger and more significant.  Should I shake my fist at the heavens for these dying creatures, and their dim brief lives?  Should I raise my voice like Job, asking what these beings had done to deserve such calamity?

"Look at this," I would cry, pointing to the throes.  "Have you seen this horror?  Have you seen this injustice?"

This, I would shout, to the Maker of all things?  Who not only formed and shaped all being and possibility, but also stands in unmediated encounter with reality?  This, I would shout, to the God whose knowledge of those beings and their momentary pain is complete, who is not just omniscient, but omnipassionate?

What an absurd thought.

When we cry out like Job, we should expect the same answer he received.