Masses of Beauty and Horror

Some things are perfect en masse.

In fact, their sheer abundance is what stuns our senses and freezes our minds in a moment of wonder.

Swaths of flowers. A cascade of falling leaves. Herds of animals. Mounds of rolling clouds. Amber waves of grain. When it’s beyond what we can count, or even estimate, we find ourselves suspended in a pocket of stillness, beauty, and potential.

One flower alone may be remarkable, but combine it with thousands of others, and we’re in the presence of something far beyond the sum of the parts.

Our minds attempt to find the patterns, noticing subtle differences in color or shape that create vaguely detectable variations. It may be an ocean of blue flowers, but over there it’s darker, and under the tree it’s brighter, almost purple, but we’re not sure how.

We are humbled.

And sometimes we’re horrified.

There are few of us who find the same joy in a mound of ants, a swarm of bees, or a spider hatching. (Even writing “spider hatching” makes my skin crawl.)

Why don’t we have that same sense of awe toward masses of insects? The phenomenon is still impressive, in an abstract kind of way, but something deep inside us refuses to process it.

In her book The Voice of the Infinite in the Small, Joanne E. Lauck asks what the world would be like if we treated insects with empathy and compassion, as fellow travelers on our shared planet. Again, the idea is appealing. But the reality is—difficult.

A Bluebell Moment at Winkworth Arboretum

Winkworth Arboretum

Jeffrey Lockwood, author of The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects and an insect ecologist who had a panic attack in the presence of a swarm of grasshoppers, has some thoughts. He believes there is an initial biological response to notice small, moving things. But layered on top of just noticing is a culture’s beliefs. In our culture, let’s just say bugs aren’t…desirable.

In his article “Why We Hate Bugs,” Dr. James Hillman takes the explanation a few steps further, suggesting the multiplicity of bugs en masse is a threat to the cherished values of individuality and independence. “Imagining insects numerically threatens the individualized fantasy of a unique and unitary human being. Their very numbers indicate insignificance of us as individuals.”

He also suggests the monstrosity of insects, and the diversity of their non-human forms (sometimes straight out of a nightmare), has compelled us to put insects in the category of monster instead of just a life form that’s different from us.

Bugs are also autonomous and uncontrollable, says Hillman, which is unacceptable to the human ego. They boldly invade our personal, private spaces in direct violation of our autonomy, and we can do very little about it. They are reminders that we are not in control.

Which brings me back to that feeling of vast potential, where I also don’t feel like I have control, but in a good way. Somehow, when it’s a field of bluebells, that homogeny is uplifting, encouraging, and positive. It shows what can be achieved when everyone does their part and what beauty can be created when each individual shines as they were meant to were meant to. But when it’s a writhing mass of termites, I can’t muster up the same feelings.

But perhaps there’s hope. As I practice more compassion for myself, I am slowly able to extend it to others. Perhaps someday I’ll even be able to extend it to spiders. As long as a field of bluebells is nearby, I think I could give it a try.


One thought on “Masses of Beauty and Horror

  1. Chris says:

    Interesting and informative. My kids are fascinated with insects and they can spot the tiniest ant on our walks and marvel in wonder the way children tend to do. And, en masse – it’s hard to resist following their trail!


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