Slugs and suffering

By Richard Helmer

It’s uncanny how the most casual of parenting errors can lead to the most profound lessons of life.

On the eve of Pentecost in gorgeous Northern Californian spring weather, we were in the midst of dinner when my wife noticed a small slug munching silently on a potted succulent outside on our apartment deck. Before we had thought things through, we were encouraging our six-year-old son in the age-old biology experiment involving slugs and salt.

In a much-beloved scene of the Harry Potter stories, Ron suffers the consequences of a broken wand when his spell back-fires. He ends up spending the better part of a chapter throwing up slugs. The half-giant Hagrid offers him a bucket, remarking the only way forward is to bring up every last slimy beast. We are captivated by the comic value, never wondering what becomes of the slugs. Slugs are icky, spineless, and alien to us. They are among the simplest and most dispensable of life forms on the planet, surely.

But following the deed involving salt and the little unwelcome garden pest, we were surprised when our son burst into tears. Daniel had not shed a single tear for his ant farm when the ants quite naturally died after several weeks. Nor did he cry over Ginger, our aged Chihuahua, when she at last passed on. But somehow the deliberate extermination of this slug, amongst the least of God’s creatures, was qualitatively different.

As I tried to comfort our six-year-old, I remembered Jesus’ words about salt and the awful distortion of that teaching we had just inadvertently shown our son by using the stuff of earthy goodness to inflict suffering on an unsuspecting mollusk. I recalled the cruel acts other children and I committed against spiders and pill bugs growing up in The Midwest. I remembered my long unlearned squeamishness about threading fishing hooks with wriggling earthworms. I recounted the shock I felt in the accidental drowning of my box turtle, Sid (I thought he could swim).

We briefly attempted the rather lame “adult” explanations about death being part of life. Yet no words but “I’m sorry” and a long, tearful hug would do over the pained death of this slug. Ladling irony upon irony was our reverently washing the remains of the creature away with a little green watering can – it bore the logo of the 2006 General Convention: Come and Grow.

Each day we exterminate millions of pests so millions of people can make a living and millions more may eat. But truly there was no harm in this single tiny slug doing what it was meant to: chewing unobtrusively on a single leaf of a healthy plant a hundred times its size. How easily we teach our children to be desensitized to suffering and cruelty.

True to resilient form, our six-year-old bounced back after about half an hour, though he shared with me just before his bedtime that he still felt sorry for the slug. That blessed, most holy of slugs! Long may it rest in the merciful hands of our loving Creator.

My wife and I spent the rest of the evening quite sobered by the experience. After all, if even half of us had the heart of our six-year-old, God knows the world would be a far more peaceful place.

Now we know, too.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

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