Once when I was a timid eight-year-old I had to deal with a spider that hid near my bed. The cob’s hairy eight legs and fast movements frightened me intensely. At night I made a fuss with my parents as I refused to lie down next to it. My father assured me the harmless spider was more afraid of me than I was of it. In my wild imagination, the spider might crawl over me or go into my mouth. My father killed the spider at my request. He sprayed it with an insecticide and the spider, though not scientifically classified as an insect, died all the same as would an ant, cockroach or bee. As the spider lay on the floor, its long legs curling into its body before dying, my father emphasized again that the spider is actually a beneficial creature as it eats pesky insects. It had to die because I refused to deal with my irrational fear and to share my space with it.
Far from being happy about not sharing a bed with a spider, I felt remorseful. I promised to myself that from then on I will overcome my irrational fear of God’s creations, big and small. One day I saw a common garden snail in the drain. Although the hair on my neck stood up, I studied the slimy creature intensely. The snail, crawling along, was completely oblivious to its human observer.
Many years later, while working in my lab on my final year project in university, a centipede wandered in. The centipede could inflict a painful bite if provoked or stepped on. I didn’t want to worry about it as I go about my work. But instead of killing it, I trapped the centipede with a glass and released it outside. And no, I did not take the time to study the writhing centipede.
Perhaps I have grown too fearless at times. I once stumbled upon a dead snake while jogging on university grounds. Over a metre long, the snake was in good condition. It was probably recently killed by motorists while trying to cross the road. Why did the snake cross the road? To get to the other side, I guess. My lecturer once remarked that present-day biology students are boring and unadventurous. During his student days, he and his friends went camping in the wilderness almost every weekend, collecting interesting specimens for the lab. Feeling indignant at being labeled unadventurous, I picked up the snake, coiled and placed it in a discarded plastic bag. Not wanting to cut short my run, I hid the snake near a tree and picked it up later on the way back to the dormitory. While my room mates were out, I laid the snake out. With my vertebrate biology textbook opened, I studied its scaly features and tried to identify which species it belonged to.
The next day I handed the lecturer the snake. He was grateful for the contribution to the lab. The snake was later identified as Naja naja, or the common cobra. My mother, on the other hand, recoiled in horror when I told her of my little adventure. She said, “I’m not sure what I ate to give birth to such a brave child.”
I smiled. Certainly, my courage did not come from genes or the things she ate while I was in her womb. It was carefully nurtured over the years, starting with the poor spider.