A Spider, The “Other”, and Our Humanity

Anthropomorphism is when we give human characteristics to non-human things. Sometimes we do it with objects, but more commonly this happens with animals. I remember sitting in my docent class at the Louisville Zoo and having our teacher, Doug, explain that the practice can be dangerous to both the people and the animals when this occurs.

Outside my workroom window lives a giant spider. When I first saw it I was a little freaked. I called in people from the hall to see it. It’s out of the ordinary and unique, easily the size of a half-dollar with yellow and brown stripes. After we ogled it a while, I continued about my work and didn’t see it again for a few days. I was relieved. It was a freaky spider.

Yesterday I was looking into the afternoon sun and a glint caught my eye. Silver, octagonal strands appeared before my eyes. There was a huge, beautiful, symmetrical web. It was so large there was no way it was new. It had to have been there all along. The spider hadn’t been hanging loose. It had been on its web, in its home. I just hadn’t seen it.

Today it’s back. I watch and stare as it sits in the middle of its home. I wonder in awe at nature’s capabilities and design. Alone in the workroom, I feel the need to tell the spider how gorgeous it is and how much I enjoy its presence outside the window. It’s windy and the web pulses on currents of air. The spider remains calmly at the center. I start to wonder if it really is calm. Is it scared? What’s it feeling? Empathy rises in my chest as I compare my life lessons to its own.

Then I realized that I was anthropomorphizing the little guy. He’s a spider not a human. He’s not sitting there worrying about whether a storm is coming with the wind and how it will affect his web. He’s not worried that he may not get to see the blond at the keyboard through the window again. But I am doing all of those things for him because I am human. It came so easily to me, the ability to get over my fears and find common ground with this creature that at first had seemed so “other”… so scary.

I wonder : If it’s so easy for us to anthropomorphize animals that we fear, why is it so hard for us to see humanity in the people we call “other”?
In the space of three days I had moved from ogling, to awareness, to friendship with a spider, but there are millions of people who go there whole lives treating actual human beings with different skin colors, different sexual orientations, or different IDEAS as less than human. There are millions of people who can’t move past the fear, who can’t see the web, who don’t recognize the common experiences of love and fear – the humanity that we all possess.

I think back to Doug’s comment about how dangerous it can be to anthropomorphize a wild animal and yet people do it every day. And then I think about how not dangerous it is to reach out and extend understanding and friendship to another human being. It’s in us – that ability and desire to connect. We have the inherent ability to remove the fear, find the common ground, and love if we just look. Why can’t we look? Is it a choice to remain blind? Is it a choice to live in fear? Is it a choice that actually diminishes our own humanity? If we can give human qualities to animals that scare us – why can’t we do the same for our brothers and sisters?

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