by Rick Bayan
(June 21, 2002) My cousin Steven shares my inclination to believe that the universe conspires against sensitive creatures. Since both of us belong to that unfortunate tribe, we’ve forged a lifelong bond that transcends the coincidence of kinship.
We share our romantic travails, cultural complaints, creative struggles, psychosomatic disorders and afflictions of the soul. I hear about his food allergies; he hears about my chronic eyestrain. When he grumbles about the raucous music that pummels his head from the neighboring apartment, I urge him to find a new domicile. When I grumble about my lack of recognition as a writer, he urges me to submit my work to actual publications. Neither of us takes the other’s advice, but both of us are comforted. Such friendships are indispensable.
This morning I called Steven to announce my return from Florida and catch up on family business. The last time I saw him was at his mother’s eightieth birthday party, on the deck behind his sister Jane’s house, just a few days before the Florida trip. It had been one of those glittering late-spring afternoons: a spectacle of sharp sunlight and towering white clouds, with a distant storm on the horizon followed by the rousing climax of a luminous double rainbow. The colors of the sky and foliage seemed to be artificially enhanced for our viewing pleasure. We all basked in the beauty of the scene and the warmth of our extended family; we ate and drank and talked and celebrated, as gleeful three-foot-high representatives of the next generation frolicked among us veterans. It was as nearly perfect a day as you could extract from a notoriously imperfect world.
My wife Anne and I watched with delight as Jane’s three girls played with the eight mallard ducklings that their father had bought them as a surprise. Marc, the father, is a man of breathtaking energy and enthusiasm. Give him enough time and money, and he could probably transform the republic of Tajikistan into a tourist mecca. In the real world, he simply turned his own backyard into a paradise for his girls, complete with a playhouse, wooded trails, a dugout pond and a manmade waterfall cascading into it from an impeccably manicured grassy slope.
To this idyllic landscape he recently added the aforementioned mallard ducklings. He had ordered them from an online duck merchant (what wonders the Web has brought us!), which had miraculously shipped the new hatchlings directly to his home in pristine condition. Those innocent little fuzzballs, now just over a week old, seemed to revel in their green and watery world as much as the girls rejoiced in playing with them. They peeped vigorously, they swam for pleasure, they ate with gusto, they snuggled in a fluffy yellow heap inside the wire cage that Marc had built to shelter them at night. The scene was almost enough to make this cynic believe that the world was a fundamentally joyous and benevolent place, much the way he had perceived it as a boy. It felt good to view the world in this fashion once again.
When I talked to Cousin Steven today over the phone, he announced that four of the eight ducklings had been dispatched by a predator that very morning. Marc heard the commotion at around five a.m. and rushed outside to the duck compound, where he saw a rotund and shadowy creature lumbering off into the woods. The perpetrator appeared to be a hefty raccoon. Marc managed to rescue one duckling in the midst of its abduction, but four others were gone and presumably supplying the raccoon with needed nutrients.
Steven told me that Marc was devastated; the ducklings had imprinted on him and regarded him as their mother-protector. The attachment had been mutual. Marc had taken pains to safeguard their cage by placing heavy rocks on the roof, but he had underestimated the motivation of the raccoon. With a display of supernatural strength and cunning, the predator had achieved its goal. With a bold and bloody conquest, it anchored its place on the food chain above ducklings and other victims.
Meanwhile, the four dead ducks, after waiting billions of years to enter this amusing world, had enjoyed approximately three weeks of sun, swimming and cuddling before the door slammed in their faces. They’d be nonentities for the rest of eternity, with no memory of their earthly vacation. They had existed primarily as a source of protein for a prowling raccoon.
Cousin Steven wondered what kind of god would devise a system in which some creatures exist to feed the bellies of other creatures. Why couldn’t all of us, including lions and raccoons and CEOs, be vegetarians? The food chain struck both of us as a great cosmic injustice, and I can’t honestly reconcile it with notions of a benevolent Creator. What can you say about a deity who gladly dispenses with the lives of the meek to nourish a strong and devious elite? I noted to Steven that it sounds all too much like the modern corporate system, where chief executives abscond with $50 million severance packages drawn from the blood of earnest secretaries and small investors. Steven observed that this system seems to be the natural order of things, in human society as in nature. We could only conclude that God is on the side of the predators, and that he rewards the ruthless.
It’s a sobering thought, marginally blasphemous but nonetheless valid to anyone without blinders, that in order to lead virtuous lives, we humans sometimes have to compensate for the moral deficiencies of God. We can shake our heads in cynical disillusionment when we observe how brutal the world can be. We can stew inwardly when we notice that the winners tend to be rascals. The realists among us can convince themselves that the natural order is wise and ultimately beneficial to all. But then the time comes to make a decision: whether we should embrace the world as it is, food chain and all, or stand in perennial opposition to everything we perceive as cruel and unjust. You’re looking at the cynic’s dilemma, and I’ve cast my lot. I’m on the side of the ducklings.