Of Mosquitoes and Men
Mosquitoes suck our blood and ruin our picnics. So how could they possibly make us wiser, better people? You might be surprised.
By William Whitehead
Being a minister means low budget vacations. No all expense paid cruises for me and my family. We load up the truck, hitch up our camper and head for the hills. This time we traveled to the wilds of Northeast Pennsylvania. Beautiful, peaceful, with nice quiet people, it’s the perfect place to relax and read a good book by an open fire. The beautiful blue sky stretches out above us as we ponder the wonders of God’s creation.
A couple of weeks before we packed up and headed out, that beautiful blue sky filled with clouds and dropped more rain on NEPA than has been seen in thirty years. The rain came down and the floods came up and the Susquehanna River overflowed its banks and deluged towns and villages. After the sky turned blue again and the floodwaters subsided, there were thousands of pools of water left behind evaporating in the summer sun. These thousands of puddles soon contained millions of mosquito larvae, which soon hatched into millions of flying insects whose sole purpose was to make my week in the woods a living hell.
They attacked us as soon as we got out of the truck. Within minutes my wife and I were covered with bites. Being veteran campers, we were prepared with various anti-mosquito strategies. We tried Skin So Soft and the mosquitoes bit us while they enjoyed the silky smoothness of our skin. We heard that Bounce fabric softener works and is less harsh then other defenses. When the mosquitoes landed on us they didn’t suffer from static cling. We applied concoctions featuring the dreaded Deet. Deet is the best anti-mosquito chemical around but it’s like smearing toxic waste all over your body. The mosquitoes paused a while to ponder this new development. Then they donned environmental suits and bit us anyway. We sat close to a smoky fire hoping that would help but I saw the bugs sitting on the edge of the fire pit toasting marshmallows.
Even Jack the camp host wasn’t immune. Most state parks employ a camp host for the summer to act as a liaison between the campers and the rangers. Jack answers questions and calls the rangers if there is any trouble. He told me that he lives year round in his RV and travels the country. He loves traveling because he meets all kinds of people. A family he met in New Mexico maintained an old fort that was a national historical landmark. He found out that the family lived alone at the fort and traveled once a month a hundred miles to the nearest store to buy food and supplies. He asked them if they were bothered by the absence of other people, but they said they wouldn’t live anywhere else. At the campsite, Jack sat in his chair and shared stories with anyone willing to stop and chat. Mosquitoes bit him every so often, but he didn’t seem to be bothered at all. I guess they are part of the memories he collects as he travels the country.
We played games like dominos and a card game called Zap with our friends Pat and John. Everyone who knows Pat is amazed she is willing to sleep in a tent and cook outdoors. Pat is very meticulous with her appearance—putting on makeup and fixing her hair as soon as she rises in the morning. She works hard to keep her world organized. At camp everything is kept in its proper place. Food, supplies, towels, are carefully arranged in milk crates and stacked in the van. Nothing is allowed to sit on the picnic table that doesn’t belong there. Pat’s mission in life is to bring order to her world, even if that world consists of dirt, grass, and gravel. As the mosquitoes swarmed around her waiting for their chance to pounce, they were required to get in line and take a number.
Around the bend from us were several families with lots of little kids. The kids were having a blast running around the playground, riding their bikes, rolling down the hill on a Big Wheel. Their parents valiantly slathered anti-bug stuff on them, but to no avail. They were covered with bites. Every time I saw one I would cringe. But the kids just kept doing what they wanted to do. About mid-week a local news channel car rolled into camp. They were looking for a story about the mosquitos and they came to the right place. They interviewed the families and filmed the kids and gleefully rushed back to the studio because there is nothing that says suffering better than a ten year old covered from head to toe with red welts. But as usual, this was only part of the story. The other part was that this kid was still having a ball, along with the rest of his little pals. Children are much more resilient than we give them credit for. They may cry and complain loudly when a parent is in view, but when no one is looking they’re back to having a good time.
I did not have the pleasure of meeting the person or persons who propped open the men’s room door. Every day there were a gazillion bugs in the men’s room. There were spiders making webs in the corners, Daddy Long Legs hiding in the toilet, moths perched on the walls and, of course, swarms of the dreaded you-know-what’s. I moved the rock that was the doorstop and closed it. The next time nature called, the door was propped open again. This went on all week long. As I sat on the throne I kept a careful eye open for the flying villains. If I saw one, I swatted it with my hat and celebrated with a notch in the toilet paper roll. But in the end my adversary was victorious and the door was open as I drove out of the campground.
As I sat in that beautiful campground pondering the beauties of God’s creation, I couldn’t help but wonder why He had created these little monsters. It really is 21st century remake of the David and Goliath story, with a perverted 21st century twist: David is the bad guy. He’s a tiny insect who takes advantage of the summertime bounties of warmth, and rain, feeds off of our blood, gives us diseases that kill and maim millions. We Goliaths spray him, swat him, and bug zap him. We spend billions trying to come up with the most sophisticated weapons with which to annihilate him. But he cannot be vanquished. The greatest technological achievements of the modern world have come up with only one sure fire way of escaping him—jumping in a space ship and leaving the planet.
Perhaps the message here is that God created mosquitoes to remind us of our ultimate frailty and keep us humble. We think we’re so great because we’re lots bigger than the mosquitoes. But there’s one place where size doesn’t matter, and that’s in the eyes of God. All creatures were created equal, and each and every species has its particular job to do. The mosquitoes’ job is to keep alive at our expense. Our job is to keep alive at theirs. Even though they are one-trillionth our size, they are a formidable enemy, and should be admired as such. Like little David aiming his slingshot at his giant adversary, or third world terrorists bringing down a superpower, they serve as a warning to us lest we get too smug. Arrogance goes before the fall.
So, I returned from my vacation with a new respect for mosquitoes. Not that I’m sending them apologies, or inviting them to dinner or anything. But now, as I swat them and spray them, I try to appreciate them, for keeping me in my humble place and making me a wiser, and maybe better, human being.
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William Whitehead is pastor at First Baptist Church of Rahway, NJ. His last essay for SoMA was Giving Till It Hurts.
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