Here’s a thought experiment, or a mental exercise, I often try when out hiking. It doesn’t have to be strictly for hikes, of course, or even outside. If there is a living thing nearby, it will apply—even a spider in the corner of the ceiling, or a moth that got in and is circling the light.
Every living thing is the centre of its own story. Isn’t that a wild thought? Obvious, of course, but as humans we’re so conditioned to see ourselves as central, as the pinnacle of evolution or God’s special masterpiece, that we forget that the living things we look at are looking back at us through their own eyes, and form conclusions that might not even be intelligible to us.
But what might their perception be? We regularly measure the utility of other lives through the lens of human satisfactions: every living thing, every species and landscape, had better make us better off somehow or it’s likely to get a literal axe. If it can’t profit us, heal us, feed us, or entertain us, then it had better inspire us, or there’s no point in letting it be. But when I look at myself through the eyes of a living thing that I am looking at, and I ask myself whether, according to those metrics, it would see any reason why I should exist, the world looks very different.
Of course a frog, a grasshopper, a robin, a minnow, a blade of grass, a sumac, a pond, would see no benefit whatsoever to my continued existence, and why should they? And why should it be my perspective, or the perspective of my kind, that sorts out who and what lives and dies in our shared world? We are, most of the time, bit players with walk-on parts in a play written in a language we can’t hear, let alone speak, on a stage we didn’t build, still convinced we own the theatre.
Then I wonder what, say, the milky way galaxy or even the solar system, if it had a perceptual organ with which to observe this little cousin and myself, would think of us. Would it even be able to tell us apart? The differences in size and scale that are so obvious and important to us would be minute; our genetic differences next to zero; as living things that move, eat, excrete, mate, reproduce, raise young, build and destroy, then die, we must be nearly indistinguishable. We are separated only by a breath.