Even as a little kid I hated the song about the marching ants. It was relentless and catchy, especially in the hands of an 8-year-old on the playground. But it wasn’t just the fact that a determined schoolboy with a snotty nose, perpetually untied shoelaces, and a fairly loose grasp of rhyming schemes could somehow stretch the song to 127 verses about the travails and adventures of insects walking purposefully in formation. It was the creepiness of the song, all that marching.
Even when I was young, I understood that marching really only occurs in a limited context: war. And why are schoolchildren singing an upbeat ditty about war? What kind of world did I grow up in?
I later learned that the song about the ants was a rip-off of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which people sang during the Civil War when they wanted nothing more than to see their loved ones return home safely. What kind of world did they grow up in?
It’s hard to be surprised when bad things happen. I want to be. I want to say, “How could this happen? Who knew that such evil existed in this world?” But news of the Boston Marathon bombings came on the heels of weeks of coverage of teenage girls committing suicide after being gang raped by their classmates and having photos of the assaults distributed throughout their schools. And right on the heels of the reports that some sick monster, or a group of sick monsters, decided to turn an event that celebrates the human spirit into a gut-wrenching montage of horror and fear, more news broke of yet another United States drone strike. And the ants keep on marching, driving the death count upward.
It’s hard to be surprised by anything, even the death of an 8-year-old who just wanted to watch the incredible triumph of a runner crossing the finish line after a long, hard race. Or a 6-year-old Yemeni girl struck down by a drone. Or a 15-year-old California girl who killed herself eight days after allegedly being sexually assaulted by her classmates.
It’s hard to say something uplifting, like don’t let those bad guys get you down. We’re better than them. We’ll rise above this. Somehow, we’ll be better, stronger. ‘Cause, what doesn’t kill you … right?
Personally, I don’t know that I agree with the whole “if you’re not dead, you’re now stronger” sentiment. ’Cause what doesn’t kill you can still turn you into a bloodthirsty jingoist. It can give your leaders and government justification to take away your rights. It can put the controls to unmanned aerial vehicles in your kids’ hands. What doesn’t kill you can be used to justify killing someone else. And those damned ants just keep on marching and multiplying. So we have to march and multiply to keep up. And who the hell knows where it will all lead?
What doesn’t kill you can really mess with your head. It can make you wonder when and how and why the world became so complicated, so violent. And it can make you take morally questionable steps in an attempt to regain control—your own personal ant march, which will never actually get you wherever it is you’re trying to go. Because on a planet inhabited by seven billion other people, you’re never in control. The ants are going to keep marching, and maybe sometimes you’ll join them, whether out of fear or confusion or anger or simply because you were given the order to fall in.
What doesn’t kill you can also remind you of your humanity—a brilliant and terrible and vulnerable condition. Everything within us, the capacity to hurt and help, to marvel at the triumph of a fellow human being running 26.2 miles in less than three hours and mourn the death of people we never met or knew, is not a product of color, political affiliation, sex, religion, sexuality, nationality, blood type, or zodiac sign. And it’s been there since the first hairy human being walked the Earth. What we do with that, whether we fall in and demand blood, somebody’s blood, anybody’s blood, or sprint toward the wreckage with the hope of alleviating another human being’s pain, is just about the only control we have.
Shredder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.