I took my two youngest boys and two of their friends up to my sister’s house in Wisconsin last week. It’s a small house on an island in a lake near the Mississippi facing a brilliantly orange, nightly sunset. It’s waterfront property so it’s surrounded by nature. It’s quiet there: no jets passing overhead, no hiss of incessant traffic, just the occasional whistle of a distant train.
Every morning I’d wake up before the kids, pour myself a cup of coffee, and go out to the beach to sit and soak it all in. At that time of day, the lake was a smooth silver sheet, stretching out for miles, mirroring the light blue sky. Broods of ducklings appeared, dunking and gliding through the water, under the watchful eye of their mothers. A trio of Starlings played a game of tag in midair. Some mornings, an eagle circled lazily above. There was even a family of wild mink who’d scurry by me along the shoreline.
This time of year there’s also a sizable swarm of Mayflies clinging to buildings, trees, and bushes. The big swarm occurs earlier around June with smaller batches throughout the summer. Mature Mayflies are small insects, an inch or two long, thin and fragile. They begin their lives underwater where they hatch from eggs and live for a year, tunneling beneath rocks, feeding on algae. They molt several times over that year, growing bigger until they’re ready for their time on the surface.
Once out of the water, they live for a day, no more than two. They don’t sting. They don’t bite. In this form they have no mouths, in fact, because they don’t eat. They use their newly sprouted wings to hover high above the ground— and mate. Once impregnated, the female lands back on the water, lays her eggs and dies. And the cycle begins again. The male mates a few more times, but then he soon dies, too.
Some Mayfly hatchings are so huge, often numbering in the trillions, swarms are picked up on Doppler weather radar. The bugs cover buildings, hover around streetlights at night, and pile up on roads so thick cities dispatch snowplows to deal with the carcasses.
It may sound corny but watching Mayflies perform their airborne dance each morning got me thinking: humans aren’t that different than Mayflies. There are trillions of us, too, swarming over the planet. Our time on earth is fleeting just like theirs. We’re both finite. The difference is— Mayflies know their purpose. It’s instinctive to them, built in. Of course, theirs is a simple one: live, mate, die. Done. (Some of them end up with a different purpose, inadvertently, as food for birds or fish.) But as a group, they achieve their goal each year, fulfill their purpose.
Mayflies don’t stress over the mortgage. They don’t worry about how they’re going to send their hatchlings to college. They don’t screw over their fellow Mayflies to increase their net worth or get Botox because they don’t want to feel old. They don’t fret about planning for retirement; they, of course, have no retirement. They don’t concern themselves with organized religion. Mayflies don’t complicate their lives with busy work like humans do.
Mayflies just are.
Humans can learn a thing or two from Mayflies. Most humans occupy a good portion of their lives consumed with things that obscure their purpose, searching, in vain, for some deeper meaning to it all. Is it money? Having a higher number on your bank statement than the other guy, is that your purpose? Work? Is that why you’re here, improving someone else’s bottom line? To write the next great novel or Budweiser commercial? Serve God? (whatever that means, exactly) To get more hits on your blog?
Now, have I had some epiphany, become imbued with humanity’s purpose? Ah, I wish I had. I don’t know what our purpose is... But I’m starting to, at least, see what it isn’t.
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