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Then the squirrel darted into traffic


Bored with the traffic jam, I turn my head toward the tiny movement, a gray blur at the edge of my peripheral vision. The opposite lane clears, and a BMW driver revs his car’s sleek engine, its wheels rolling soundlessly past me, two inches away from a barely-fuzzed tail. Huge black shadow, hot metal, vibrating asphalt -- the baby squirrel darts left, toward the safety of the sidewalk. Then he changes his mind and veers straight into the path of a Jeep. “No! Go back!” I cry, rolling down the window as though he knows English. “Go back!”

He veers again, then freezes. Stands in the middle of the lane, his tiny ears pointed, his sparse soft tail at half-mast. Danger, he is definitely in danger. Which way should he go? How did he get himself into this mess anyway?

I know the feeling. Holding my breath, I pray he’ll run back to safety.

Instead he crosses under my wheels.

Should I honk? Would that panic him even more? My turn to freeze, hoping. Finally he emerges from under my old Sentra and dashes into the lane next to me. “Stop,” I yell, seeing a big boat of an Oldsmobile grow larger in my rearview mirror.

I cannot bear to watch this baffled baby squirrel die. There’s been too much death already, I think. I don’t care if he’s just a squirrel, he’s alive right now and he didn’t ask for this, nobody gave him a traffic manual, nobody fenced off his tree.

The Oldsmobile brakes, and the little guy makes it to the grassy lawn. Reassured by the familiar texture, he leaps across the sidewalk into the vast greenness of Forest Park. I breathe a long sigh.

Someplace far away, I hear a fury of honks, and I accelerate automatically, driving on to work. For half a minute, that squirrel has mattered more than anything else in the world. Now that he is, at least temporarily, safe, I have the luxury of wryness. More than 5,000 infinitely storied, rich, complex human lives lost in a global act of terror, thousands more lost in retaliation, and I’m worried about a squirrel?

OK, so he’s not a symbol-making creature who defies both instinct and common sense by interpreting modern art. He can’t even deconstruct buttery hints of oak and pear in a glass of Chardonnay. He knows danger, though, and he knows the sick confusion of seeing no clear path of escape. His panic, in that split second on the road, sent the same adrenaline coursing through his tiny bloodstream that courses through yours and mine, triggering an electrical storm of impulses in his simple brain.

I forget about him, of course. But a few days later, paging through the most recent copy of The Sun, I find Rebecca Seiferle’s description of a man running from the World Trade Center. Balding, bespectacled, his round form covered in gray dust, “he had been running headlong, but now he moved this way and that, in confusion, as if uncertain where he was or where he needed to go.”

I sit a minute, thinking how common life’s patterns are. We set up elaborate hierarchies of suffering, measuring pain by numbers and proximity and how readily we can empathize with it. Then we hurl those comparisons at each other, making sharp political points. Remember how urgently we waited for a body count? Five thousand dead at the World Trade Center, we say to the world. The Taliban starts counting, and we say their numbers can’t be confirmed. Some five thousand children a month dead because of sanctions against Iraq, liberals keep pointing out. Nearly 1 million Tutsis, murmurs my husband, slaughtered in a civil war the United States ignored entirely.

Those political points need to be made. We care more about people who are like we are, we care more when we think we could suffer the same fate. Numbers can remind us of our biases, and our hypocrisy, and our enemies’ losses, and our own good fortune.

Squirrels can remind us of far greater dangers to far more complex beings.

Yet, in the end, the comparisons are spurious. The squirrel wants to live, and he fights for survival as instinctively as we do. His struggle is congenial to me because it is so recognizable, and because he is so helpless. I empathize with his cartoon flight.

Then my neurotic friend Jill calls, working herself up to fever pitch over the traffic flow in her subdivision, and I go cold. People are being tortured, I think to myself, and you’re worried about the yield sign? This is not helpless, this is merely petty.

Jill’s world is small on purpose, her rage channeled narrowly because her mind floods so easily, drowning in doubt and fear every time she ventures farther.

And that, too, is a kind of suffering, and who am I to weigh it? I, who listen every day to people in serious trouble, yet continue to whine about the exquisite pain of my sinus headaches?

We are human, and we are limited, and we deal with what is most immediate. The trick would be to expand what is immediate until it includes lives very different from our own. If we had that courageous an imagination, we wouldn’t be able to diminish half the world’s suffering by distancing it, or trivializing it, or one-upping it. We could stop judging pain’s merits and stop rationing our love.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001