On Spiders and Human Complexity
I have a five-year-old niece named Mila. She and her little sister Nora have brought more joy to our family than we ever could have imagined possible. While Nora seems to be refining her basic motor skills, mostly through waving and blowing kisses, Mila is learning to communicate through writing. I was delighted to receive a text message from her mother’s phone last week that read, “Hi ant Amy this is mila. I hava qeshston aubalt spiders.” (Translation for the uninitiated: “Hi Aunt Amy, this is Mila. I have a question about spiders.”)
Aside from this being the single most precious and adorable text message to have ever been sent in the history of texting, I was excited to hear about Mila’s interest in spiders. When I was her age I was obsessed with all living, crawling, creeping, things. I would sit on the floor with a stack of World Book Encyclopedias and read entry after entry about animals in alphabetical order. So when Mila told me she wanted to talk about spiders, I was ready to step up to the plate.
The phone rang, and then I heard her little earnest voice answer: “Aunt Amy?”
“Yes! Mila, is that you?”
She began to giggle. “Yes, it’s me. Did you get my message?”
“I did! You should know that I am not a spider expert, but I will do my best to answer your question. What is it?”
She took a deep breath. “Well, I was just wondering—are all spiders poisonous?”
Thankfully, this was a question I could answer. First we discussed the difference between poison and venom, but then I let her know—yes, nearly all spiders are venomous. Audible terror came through the speaker of my phone as her breathing hastened. “So, they all want to bite me??”
“Well, no—not all spiders, Mila.” I laughed to myself after the words fell from my mouth. Not all spiders. It reminded me of the politically charged rebuttals which begin with the same phrase. But this was a lighthearted conversation in which I assured my niece that most spiders cannot actually harm humans, in which I assured her that the wolf spider that she saw, which prompted this whole conversation, was far more afraid of her than she was of it. It was a conversation in which I began to help my niece realize that while the term spider connotes danger, the term spider does not tell the whole story about the thousands upon thousands of species of spiders in all of their glorious diversity.
It seemed to be an appropriate analogy for a five-year-old to begin to understand the complexity of living beings. It’s a dangerous task we have, to label and categorize the world around us. We constantly run the risk of overgeneralizing. In fact, overgeneralizing sometimes helps us feel safe. If some spiders are dangerous, then maybe I will just avoid all spiders to be safe. To limit the complexity of living things is one way that we exercise authority and dominance, and one way that we seek self-preservation. And yet, when I am the one who is swept up in an overgeneralization, I almost always buck against what feels like an unfair appropriation.
I recently saw a Facebook post from somebody I have always liked and respected—but her post surprised me and disappointed me. Her post reduced all democrats to “murderous baby-killers.” Is that really what she thinks I am? I wondered. Yes, I have voted as a democrat. What does that word mean to you? What am I to you, as a democrat? Furthermore, your neighbor who voted as a republican—what is that word to you? Is it a road sign alerting you to danger? Yes. It is. We reduce one another constantly into two-dimensional warning signs. And when we feel that we have been misunderstood in these reductionistic slurs, our immediate impulse is to say in some way, “You’ve got it wrong! That’s not me!”
Perhaps one of the most surprising and stunning features of the ministry of Jesus was Jesus’s embrace of social complexity. How might a tax-collector (who would have been considered a sell-out or a traitor) and a zealot (who would have been considered radical and dangerous) work together in a ministry of healing? Jesus saw that these categories barely scratched the surface of these living human beings. A Samaritan is not just a Samaritan. A woman is not just a woman. A Pharisee is not just a Pharisee. Jesus reminds us that nothing is quite as it seems. In order to have eyes to see the kingdom of heaven in our midst, we will have to let go of our desire for a simple world. In order to build communities of faith which the apostles sought to initiate, we will have to learn to engage one another in our difference.
Are we different from one another? Of course. And are we dangerous to one another? Maybe. But we still share the space between us. Unless the goal is to utterly dominate or eliminate our neighbors (which would be profoundly un-Christlike), we have to imagine ways to ethically engage the space that binds us to one another. Perhaps a good first step is to recognize that, while categories can help us navigate the threats of the world, categories do not always honor complexity.
I wish I could grab coffee with the woman who shared the Facebook post, to let her know why I vote the way that I vote—to show her that I am actually stirred by a high value for human life. I wish she would help me understand what prompted her to share the post in the first place. Could we move forward together? I would hope so, though I am certain it would not be easy. What I do know is that people are simply complex. And in my following of Jesus, I must be dedicated to breaking open the language we ascribe to others, to see the real complex person who is my neighbor. As we engage the space between us, we must be committed to seeing one another’s complexity, and we must be committed to telling the truth about it. It is the only way we can begin to help one another build a more just and peaceful world for all of God’s complex creatures.