The Parable of the Stink Bug and the Urinal
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
I want to share with you a story about an encounter I had at a urinal, but stick with me, because this is also a story about life and death.
I walked up to a urinal in the public bathroom at work the other day and I was in a hurry, as I always am at work. As I was readying myself, I looked down and saw a large stink bug in the urinal, trying, but failing, to climb out. My thinking was a bit slower than my actions because I had already unbuttoned myself before I thought, "I'm not going to pee on this bug."
A stink bug sounds like a bad bug, but if you see one, it's kind of woody looking. It's an outdoor bug. It clearly doesn't belong in a urinal. No one was in the bathroom and I stepped to the next urinal and as I took care of business, I thought that saving this bug from the urinal was above my pay grade. A urinal is a dirty place and you may or may not think it squeamish of me, but reaching in was an immediate veto. But then I stopped and thought that someone else would definitely pee on this bug and not many people would make the effort to save it. Someone needs to step forward on occasion and risk getting their hands dirty.
As I accepted that I was the man who needed to get this stink bug out of the urinal, I began to think about where I was going to put it that was better than the urinal. This was, perhaps, part of an attempt to get out of helping the stink bug, but it was 30 degrees out (just below freezing for anyone outside the US) and it would last a very short time outside. Putting the stink bug on the bathroom floor was also a bad choice. A kid would see this guy and stamp on him. My final decision may have been a compromise, but I want you to know that I went through this entire thought process in the act of urination--by the time I was done, I had removed the stink bug, washed my hands and left quickly.
So I decided to put him in the garbage. Again, not the best place for long term survival, but not a terrible place in the short term. The bathroom garbage is full of paper towels, which meant that he would not be crushed or exposed to anything worse than the urinal. It's also possible he would escape the bag before being put outside. Getting him out proved to be easy. I like to think he understood I was trying to help. He climbed right onto a crumpled up paper towel. I didn't need to touch him and he didn't try very hard to get away. I placed him in his towel in the trash.
While all this was going on, a secondary internal conversation was going on, partially a philosophical and meta-cognitive debate. Putting the stink bug in the trash was not all I could potentially do to save him. Had I stopped and spent actual time on the problem, I might have found a place somewhere in the building where he might hide and prosper. But by getting him out of the urinal, I was doing him some kind of service. I had bettered his position. And I think that my actions and level of investment in his predicament was appropriate to me. This was partially a debate with myself because I thought for an instant that if I was not willing to ensure this fellow's survival, what right did I have to intervene? But I told myself that my limited services were worthwhile and that although I was not willing, or perhaps even able, to invest the time and energy to save the creature, helping him not be peed on to the death or crushed under foot were substantive improvements in his lot.
So this is potentially bigger than me or the stink bug. This is become parable because it reinforced a lesson, that I think, again, was appropriate to me in the moment. We may not be able to solve every problem in life, but small incremental applications of help are not without worth or merit.