During the holidays, I visited family in Tennessee and Florida, where we encountered multiple spiders. They were doing what spiders do in houses: walking along baseboards, in and out of shadows, with seemingly little or no interest in human co-habitants.
From growing up in the Tennessee mountains, I’m familiar with spiders. I’ve studied which spiders’ venom is likely to impact humans. I’ve encountered black widows, watched for brown recluses, and investigated spider bites on my body. I’ve also realized that my fear of spiders—a fear that I’ve quieted over time—is not a rational fear of venom. Instead, it’s a fear of any and all spiders, simply because they are spiders. And I worry a lot about fearing something because it exists. Such fear literally kills people, as internalized fear of black men (fear of black and brown bodies, especially by white women) is well-documented. It’s essential to explore, spend time with, and really understand this fear.
* * * * *
When I think of fear (and spiders), I think of this wisdom from poet Nikki Giovanni (who also grew up in the Tennessee mountains):
Giovanni’s “Allowables” reminds me that when fear is in the driver’s seat, it can do real harm. Fear is linked with violence, with the limits of coming to see or care about another being, another person. Fear is linked with dehumanization, with injustice, with denying life. Literally, such fear undermines another’s right to exist.
Though fear has a role in play in our lives, that role needs to be considered and measured. For author Elizabeth Gilbert, fear belongs in the backseat. Though it can offer suggestions and give information, we must determine how to act with that information.
More and more, I realize that whenever I’m tuning out fear, it grows louder in its insistence to be heard. And the louder fear is, the greater its potential for taking over and short-circuiting mindful, committed action.
* * * * *
It’s taken me years to shift my attitude toward spiders, but now when I see spiders in houses, my instinct is to observe them and, typically, leave them be. I’ve learned that their self-determined path is to disappear into nooks and crannies, and their presence won’t harm me. That’s why I was taken by surprise by my family’s reaction to spiders.
In one spider encounter (after some yelling and shoe-throwing), a family member challenged: “If you don’t move it, I’ll kill it.”
At that moment, I heard my fear speak loudly: “Beth, if you try to move it, it might bite you.”
I’ve learned from educator Margaret Wheatley that looking at what surprises and disturbs me is a good way to see my assumptions and beliefs. In this moment, I could see shame that my old fear of spiders was still driving (not backseat-riding). I could see how fear was preventing me from interacting with spiders, much less seeing myself as truly in relation with them. Even the language of “it” held the spider at a distance, making me question the depth of my relations with other humans and non-human animals.
Thanking fear for these lessons, I luckily found a glass and a holiday card to trap the spider and move it outdoors. After a few deep breaths—of feeling how fear was undercutting relations—I looked down to see that the card held a much-needed message:
That line—“to every creature great and small”—is the sort of holiday greeting that communicates a desire for connectedness with all beings. It’s a sentiment offered to snow-people and birds, but what about to spiders? What about to humans deemed less-than-human? What about to those who are deemed expendable, whose right to exist is constantly called into question?
* * * * *
As a framework or orientation to the world, veganism helps me recognize and relate differently with fears. Through striving to relate with “every creature great and small,” veganism helps me notice when I’m afraid of others and to question—and not continually perpetuate—those fears. Veganism, too, helps me notice when fear is driving instead of backseat-riding. This noticing arises through a commitment to ecofeminism: a commitment to counter exploitation, oppression, and injustice and to affirm social, racial, gender, economic, and environmental justice.
It’s not by chance that Nikki Giovanni, a Black woman born “during the age of segregation,” wrote “Allowables.” Lived experiences facing dehumanization and white supremacy provide insights into the experience of being feared, killed, and written off. Of being dis-allowable. And such dis-allowing is why veganism must be intersectional—working not only against speciesism but also against racism, sexism, classism, -isms.
When I think of what’s most urgent in the world at this moment, I think of what’s allowed and dis-allowed. I think of who’s allowed and dis-allowed. And I think of the urgent need for a white woman to leverage courage toward combating fear. For, truly, white women’s fears have historically bolstered white supremacy, and so working with fears is essential to countering dehumanization and super-humanization (inferiority and superiority).
My hope is that by relating more humanely with spiders, we learn to relate more humanely with humans. May valuing spiders’ self-determined paths allow us to value all humans’ rights to existence and to self-determination.
This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. Feel free to check out other answers to “why I’m vegan,” including environmental justice, ecofeminism, and doing something small and sustained. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!