Headmaster's Thoughts: August 2021

When I was seven, I swallowed a flying insect while riding my bike. How I did that, I cannot remember. All I do remember is that I came home on a Saturday afternoon, upset that I had swallowed a fly, and concerned what the fly would do to me.

My father, who was home, sprang into action. He immediately drove me to the emergency room of the Middlesex Hospital in London. They must have been experiencing a slow day because, after my father talked to him, a doctor came to see me quite quickly.
The doctor looked grave and said that they were finding the spider and that it would take a little time.
“What,” I asked, “would the spider do?”
“You have to swallow the spider,” he explained, “to kill the fly.”
My father joined in at that point, and said that after that I would have to swallow a bird to catch the spider. Eventually, I realized that, for the emergency room doctor and my father, this was a joke.
So I went home with the fly inside me, and nothing happened. Nothing!
Yes, there is a moral here. This is a didactic piece. The obvious point is, “Don’t overreact!”  We humans have a tendency to do that. We find the problem of the moment and make it bigger than it is. I must admit that, notwithstanding the lesson my father and the doctor were trying to teach me with some humor, I am not the best at downplaying minor issues. I worry about them even though, frequently, I can do nothing to improve the situation. Niebuhr’s “Serenity” prayer comes to mind. It sounds like a good prayer and goes like this:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.”
This is the prayer of Stoics. It sounds so sensible as a guide to life, that I wish I could follow it. I cannot!  We humans are creatures of emotion. We grieve, as we should, even though we cannot change the death of a loved one. We feel like an imposter if someone lavishly praises us. We even pray for our local sports teams to win, although we know that our prayers will not affect the outcome of the game. We too often remember our past failures rather than our successes, and we are a very insecure species.
I doubt a fox thinks about the chicken that got away or our poodle, Timmy, worries, as he gets older, about his total lack of success in catching chipmunks. He chases them anyway. What we need is their optimism. If Timmy would talk, he might say “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”  We could learn a great deal about hope from our animal companions.
So, let me conclude by affirming that we do not, and never will have, the ability to totally lose our fears. We are, compared to other species, highly neurotic. It is what makes us human. And if perchance, you do swallow a fly, I have learned that, in my experience, a spider would not help.