Thursday, November 8, 2012

Water striders and the serious nature of frivolity

The top of the small brown pool reflects the sun's filtered rays onto the trees around it. Their large boughs hang perilously over the water's gleaming surface, piercing and twisting the light as it strains to break through. The sun is losing the battle - deep into the afternoon, the yellow rays will soon drop to orange and red against the gums before they retire for the night. The rising hum of the cicadas forebodes this defeat with devastating certainty and the other insects go peacefully about their business; mosquitoes swinging on an erratic path through the warm air, flies hovering over the pool and water striders skimming across its top.

These slim insects spread their long legs across the surface, flitting them back and forth to dart around the pool. They run into each other, brush antennae and feed on the abundance of other insects that have strayed too close to the water. This glossy top holds them up, lets them move, feed, interact. It sustains them, allows them to exist.

A big brown Christmas beetle bumbles loudly into the clearing above the pool before running into a branch and falling back into the forest. It reemerges slightly lower in the air, glances at the inviting mirror below it and pauses slightly before dropping like led into the centre of the pool.
Splash, and its ripples are cast violently to the edges, disrupting the surface tension and sending the striders into a fury. Some lose a leg or two to the water, others are completely submerged. The rest speed frantically around looking for the culprit.
The beetle flounders in the depths for a few seconds before it begins to rise.
This motion is unstoppable, the beetle is full of air and can do nothing but  rotate its spindly legs. It's terrified yet perversely excited - in less than a second the striders will descend upon it, and it will have to lash and struggle and bite for its life. "Bring it on," the beetle thinks.

And sure enough, its small black eyes poke through the glossy wall. Before its back has done the same, a few of the enraged striders have darted together and are eating the brown bug alive.

We often forget that the surface tension created by our views and assumptions is as supple, is easily penetrated. We skate around on these views and assumptions, making jokes with others who share them, teasing out-groups and highlighting their stupidity. And when a big brown Christmas beetle crashes in and breaks this tension - challenges our assumptions and points out the flaws in our arguments - we are enraged, we attack, we bite back.

"Stop being so serious, we're only joking" we chide.

But what we fail to realise is that behind the frivolousness of the joke lies a deadly serious set of assumptions about the world. Prior to the challenge of the irrupting beetle, our seriousness is internal - the offence, the violence of the challenger lies in the fact that he/she reveals this underlying seriousness, de-masks it, lays it bare for all to see. In doing so, she/he breaks the illusion of the seemingly-stable surface - its a lot weaker than we think. And so we retaliate with more violence - with insults, name-calling and if we're smart enough, we break the surface tension of the challenger's own worldview.

And the Christmas beetle is quickly devoured by the water striders unless other beetles come to its aid - unless others validate the legitimacy of her/his challenge. If not, its muffled chirps are drowned out in the fury of the onslaught.

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