This year, in the part of the United States where I live, we have had an invasion of cicadas. Billions have appeared suddenly as if they had been born out of nothing. Every 17 years they come out of the roots of the trees where they have lain dormant and buried. Upon awakening, the air is filled with an incredible noise in which the voices of people and the sound of automobiles are drowned out. And for what reason? They have a very short life of only a few days and they have to look for a mate in order to reproduce. They drop their shells in order to fulfill their only duty of nature. Once they have mated, the male flies off to find another and the female deposits her eggs on a leaf. The cicadas die soon after and their bodies pile up on paths and roads. The eggs they have left behind destroy the leaf on which they have been deposited which falls to the ground where it disintegrates leaving the next generation of cicadas to penetrate the ground and wait for another 17 years to repeat the cycle.
It all seems so useless. For one brief moment there is an abundance of life and activity and then the silence of death. It seems that these creatures do not have any other reason for being than to annoy humans with their noise and their shells and to continue the cycle of mating with each other in order to reproduce the species. For what purpose would God have created this insect? The only animals that eat them are humans who try to come up with dishes of cooked cicadas. It is true that the new generation creates small holes in the ground in order to let in sunlight and water which, in turn, nourishes the trees. But there are many other animals, worms, for example, that also fulfill the same function. The truth is that we are never going to know their reason for being. The fact is that they exist and in some way they reflect the image of God. They fulfill and have fulfilled this, their only goal, for thousands and thousands of years. They come out of the earth, they change their form be getting rid of their shells, they guarantee the next generation and they return to the earth.
I have seen this phenomenon for four or five times now. I think that I will not see it again. It is perhaps for that reason that it has affected me more this year than in the past. I believe that we humans think that we have to have a purpose for living, a reason for living, something in order to tell ourselves that we are not just wasting time. Many times that has to do with work. Even St. Paul said, “He who doesn’t work, should not eat.” It falls on us to earn our bread in the best way that we can. Sometimes our reason for being includes a family. “I live for my family.” As if we existed only in order to create a home with a mate and children. For others, the purpose is to struggle and to continue struggling, without ever seeing the end of the struggle. And the struggle never ends. It seems to me that there are also those whose goal in life is to take advantage of others, to pretend that they are better, or cleverer or more intelligent. If the whole world were this way, if it all had to serve for something, the better part of creation would soon disappear. What purpose do birds serve, or dolphins or a rose?
The correct question is not “How much is it worth?” or “What can it contribute?”. It is “How does this creature reflect the image of God?” Thus, what matters is not its value to others, but rather its intrinsic worth, what is inside itself. God has created everything with love and by love. Therefore, every creature is loved. Pope Francis has said it much better than I in his encyclical about caring for the planet, our common home. I only want to add what I have learned from the cicada. In spite of the annoyance and the appearance of uselessness, it is part of nature, of our common home, and for that reason it deserves to live. God loves it.
But there is another part to the lesson. The cicada has to get rid of its shell in order to be able to live fully. It has subsisted inside of the shell for the greater part of its existence. It has lain dormant, gathering strength in order to burst out into the world with all of its body. It frees itself so that it can relish and enjoy its few days of life. Then it dies, perhaps not happy, but now with its mission completed. It is impossible to remain in its shell for it to use its wings. It has to fly to find a mate. But we humans, also, cannot fly very far inside of our shells. And we all have them. We grab on to them fiercely because it is the only thing we know, the environment where we have grown up, and we are very comfortable there inside. It can be the shell of the childhood home, or of the ideas that we have inherited, or of the education that we have received, the social class to which we belong, or the town where we were born. We have to leave behind all of them in order to live free and well. If we remain enclosed, we will never learn to fly, we will never get to know the world or our mate, nor the mission that we have been given by God.
Oh, but cicadas die! Of course. Everything dies. It is necessary for one generation to die so that the next one might have life and grow. Nothing and no one bears fruit without the nutrition that is passed down from the preceding generation. In the case of the cicada, she has given even her own body so that her children can live. What mother or father would not give their lives for their children? Even Jesus did it. In the world of animals, parents do extraordinary things in order to get food for their children, to care for them and protect them, to teach them how to live on their own. Nevertheless, there are humans who are capable of abandoning their children to their own fate, who treat them as if they were cows or dogs, who look for their own well-being instead of that of their children. Here in the United States, for example, there are parents who are blocking vaccination and the use of masks by their children for their own political reasons. They refuse to accept what is for the good of their children and the children of their neighbors. They are parents who do not want to come out of their shells and accept the sacrifice that they should.
Let’s learn from the cicada. Let’s come out of our shells and open our wings. Let’s look at the beauty of life in our common home. Let’s recognize the power of sacrifice in order to give to future generations, including our children, a better world than the one which we have received. Let’s move ahead accepting the necessity of death.