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The Strange Lesson I Learned From A Housefly

Several years ago during a ping-pong game in Moab, Utah, I saw one of the strangest sights of my life. It won’t sound like much, but it affected me in ways I still don’t understand.

FlyAn errant shot flew off the table on my side. I walked over and knelt to pick up the ball. As I did, I noticed the fly.

During summertime in Moab, the flies in my grandparent’s backyard swarmed. From tiny little fruit flies to huge horseflies, there was always some multi-eyed little monster bouncing off your face or careening into your sweat.

But not this fly.

It sat on the concrete about ten feet away. As I watched, it started walking toward me. I’d never seen a fly sit still for more than one second, and I’d never seen one walk for more than an inch.

This fly trudged across the entire patio and stopped when it reached the toe of my shoe. It was perfectly still.

My arms broke out in goosebumps. Unnerved, I watched the fly while my ping-pong opponent yelled for the ball.

I raised my toe off the ground. The fly walked under my foot, all the way back to my heel. I didn’t know what to do. I sat there for perhaps a minute, for once in my life hoping that I could talk sense to a fly…to help it see reason.

I realized my heart was pounding. It reminded me of a night driving through a neighborhood in Nevada when a dog appeared in the road ahead of me. Its glittering eyes and unexpected presence in the dark threw me out of my driving hypnosis and I screamed. There was nothing to scream about, but I couldn’t get my heart to stop pounding.

This was very similar.

Then someone yelled so loud in the backyard that my foot came down reflexively and that was the end of that fly.

I couldn’t shake the thought that I had just seen an insect commit suicide.

The Lesson

I suppose it is possible that the fly was not clinically depressed, but I have never had another answer. It was one of the most unnatural things I’ve ever witnessed. It was an event, however tiny, that was completely out of the realm of my experience.

Does this sound insane? I know I’m making a lot of it, but the fact that I’ve never been able to forget it tells me that it is probably worth thinking about.

I don’t know.

Maybe the lesson is that even flies get the blues. If that’s the case, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I can’t adopt every stray fly I see.

Josh


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  • Gordie Rogers September 9, 2009, 4:51 am

    Murderer! Murderer! It just wanted some shade. Lol!

  • Pete | The Tango Notebook September 9, 2009, 4:55 am

    When I was in my teens, I was riding my bike and saw a squirrel crossing the street about 50 feet away. I’m used to squirrels just scurrying from one side of the road to the other, but this squirrel seemed to be soul mates with my front tire.

    I tried avoiding it but, in a blink of an eye, I ran over the poor little bugger’s head! As I looked back to see the dead squirrel, I was surprised to see it still alive when a permanent case of tack neck.

    The even weirder part is that it could still walk, but not without dragging its cock-eyed head across the pavement. It could no longer hold its head up high. I felt so bad…

  • Positively Present September 9, 2009, 5:11 am

    Wow, that’s a really interesting post. Poor fly, but perhaps that’s what s/he really wanted.

  • Beth L. Gainer September 9, 2009, 5:38 am

    Yeah, sounds like murder rather than suicide. LOL

    I once dissected a fly when I was a kid, with my dream career being a researcher at the time. Turns out I never became the scientist I wanted to be, so it turns out the dissection was a waste of time.

  • Iain Broome September 9, 2009, 5:47 am

    In my novel a dog commits suicide by electrocuting itself in the sink. True story. Not the suicide, I made that up.

  • Casey September 9, 2009, 7:24 am

    @Beth, perusing science is never a waste of time, even if you didn’t become a researcher! Unless we are talking about learning about limits taken to infinity, then yes, you wasted your time. (Skip straight to integrals)

    Sounds like you were an accessory in the flies suicide. I think it bears an eerie resemblance to the final scene of “The Fly” where the fly/Goldbloom drags himself over and raises the shot gun barrel to his head and just stares, silently begging for release… Only your fly was normal size and you didn’t have a shotgun.

    But in all seriousness, it does make you step back and wonder if the fly really does the mental capacity to want to end its own life. If that’s the case, what does that mean every time we end the life of fly? Or any other animal? Some seriously deep thinking is required.

  • Gayze September 9, 2009, 8:25 am

    As an animal communicator, it sure doesn’t sound that strange to me. I wonder why. 🙂

    A fly who isn’t flying is probably on its (I can’t believe I’m about to type this…) last legs. It’s not an enormous stretch, not for me, anyway, to think that it would prefer a quick end than a long (for a fly) stretch of starvation and dehydration before it died.

    Josh, you MUST read J. Allen Boone’s little book, “Kinship With All Life”. I mentioned the book, and wrote an article on “The Lower Life Forms”, in the most recent issue of my newsletter (archived on my website if anyone’s interested). Since then, it seems like “flies” have been entering into my circle of experience in various ways every day. Yesterday afternoon, I was hanging out, just taking a break, and playing a computer game, and one landed on my shoulder. For some reason I resisted the urge to brush it off, because the little critter turned to face the screen, and stayed for the duration of the game.

    I could swear I heard it cheering me on.

  • Craig September 9, 2009, 9:16 am

    You may have it all wrong. The fly may have had an uncanny sense of smell which compelled it to gravitate toward the squashed fragment of discarded gummy bear that was clinging to the sole of your shoe. It took you for a philanthropist and became a victim of involuntary manslaughter (or flyslaughter).

    Indeed a bizarre incident nonetheless!

  • Michele September 9, 2009, 9:54 am

    What’s even stranger, Josh, is the fact that a fly could have an actual thought process to figure out he could commit suicide. Strange, isn’t it? Wow. Definitely the most thought-provoking, unique post I’ve come across in quite a while!

    *smiles*
    Michele

  • Larissa September 9, 2009, 10:07 am

    LOL! That would have seriously creeped me out! Maybe it had already been dazed by being hit by a ping pong ball and wanted to be put out of its misery!?! 😀

    • Josh Hanagarne September 9, 2009, 10:29 am

      @Larissa. I wouldn’t be surprised. It was not a high-caliber game.

      @Michele: Can flies even think? I know they conspire at night to buzz above my face when I’m trying to sleep, but I assumed that was just their genetic nastiness at work.

      @Craig: Correction: I probably, certainly have it all wrong. If you’re right, I’m glad I was able to help. That’s why I’m here. To help things by smashing them into pulp.

      @Gayze: Now, you’re who I should have asked! For what it’s worth, I’m not going to be letting flies perch on me during Dr. Mario sessions. What game were you playing? Did the cheering fly help?

      @Casey: All appearances to the contrary, serious deep thinking is my worst enemy. I’m all pseudo. That’s why you’re here, smart guy.

      @Iain: You’re not secretly Iain Banks, are you? He’s big on animals getting killed in his novels.

      @Beth: dissecting a fly sounds way too hard. Too small. I would have faked sick. But your hands are probably dainty and dexterous, while mine are like crocodile hide mittens.

      @Positively Present: perhaps. I wish the flies who keep me awake at night wanted the same sort of attention.

      @Pete: that’s awful. I hate to see animals in pain. Which reminds me of a longer, dumber story involving an even dumber dog we used to have. I’ll have to write that up.

      @Gordie: It’s true. I’m a cold-blooded killer. And my thick glasses make it worst. Who knows what poor sucker might fall prey to a murderous blind man?

  • Shane September 9, 2009, 10:45 am

    Perhaps beached whales are doing so on purpose. Life in the open sea is just too damn’d depressing.

    Also, on my country street, each morning, some birds fly in front of my car (which is doing 50mph) just missing it. Over the past 10 years, several have not been so lucky and died hitting my car. Are they doing this for fun? Did the birds that failed suck at chicken? Or, did they just want to end a dull life of eating bird seed?

    • Josh Hanagarne September 9, 2009, 10:55 am

      Shane, I hate the ocean. I think you’re onto something with those whales. I’d be depressed, too. I don’t like bird seed, either.

  • Leah September 9, 2009, 10:56 am

    Man, don’t you recognize a gesture of friendship when you see it? The fly just wanted your friendship and humanity, and you taught it the ultimat lesson in hostility. And I hope you know I don’t believe a word I just wrote. It’s hard to wax philosophic on this one… I’m just sayin’…

  • Gayze September 9, 2009, 10:58 am

    Josh, it was just a boring game of Yahtzee … I think the fly was more interested than I was. I don’t even remember if I won.

    @Shane, those birds? There have actually been behavioral studies in recent years about that phenomenon. The biologists involved came to the conclusion that the birds have actually adapted to the presence of automobiles and are using them for part of the flight display they put on to impress a mate.

    So, yes, they’re playing chicken, and the birds that fail don’t get the girl!

    According to those biologists, anyway….

  • Marc September 9, 2009, 11:25 am

    Flies have nowhere to go, that might be the reason :http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAX0uYodkQg

    • Josh Hanagarne September 9, 2009, 11:47 am

      Marc, Nada Surf was the last thing I expected to come out of this thread. Bravo!

  • Casey September 9, 2009, 11:45 am

    Gayze, i think you might have offended the fly, why didn’t you ask him/her/it to play with you? I’ve heard flys are pretty good at Halo. 😉

  • Helen Hoefele September 9, 2009, 12:55 pm

    Quite some interesting theories here. The comments are getting to be as fun as the posts. 🙂

    Josh, maybe a “higher power” just wanted you to have something to write about some day, something to bring us all together over.

    Or, maybe it was all just a big coincidence, a perfect storm of sorts. Either way, great post!

  • Elliot Wilson September 9, 2009, 1:06 pm

    There are lot’s of animals that do this when you think about it. A sick house cat for instance will hide away and look for some place to lie down and die. Same with dogs. I guess humans would have done that more often in the past before medical advancements helped us keep us alive so much longer.

  • Jessica Marie September 9, 2009, 1:26 pm

    I agree with Gayze; the fact that the fly was crawling and not flying might indicate poor health, either mental or physical. You did not mean to step on the fly but perhaps that’s what it truly wanted.

  • Sami - Life, Laughs & Lemmings September 9, 2009, 2:47 pm

    You’d be depressed too if your days were spent eating road kill or cow poop and being waved away by humans! 😉 Funny and crazy post Josh.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 9, 2009, 4:09 pm

      Sami, that’s exactly why I AM depressed.

  • Gayze September 9, 2009, 2:58 pm

    LOL, Casey, however good the fly might be at Halo, I’m sure he’d be better than me!

    –Gayze of little brain and no coordination

  • KMK September 9, 2009, 5:04 pm

    Cool story, sorry the little fella got squished. I believe animals and insects like people, can react to pain or punishment and comprehend pathos, anger, and kindness. Little miracles are all around us.
    I witnessed a hurt animal that chose to drown itself, perhaps to end its suffering.

  • Daisy September 9, 2009, 5:37 pm

    Did I tell the one about my golfing friend who knocked out a squirrel -twice? The same squirrel, too!

  • Greg September 9, 2009, 5:49 pm

    Guess it goes to show what happens when you get distracted from the focus of your attention… Squish.

  • Dan September 12, 2009, 8:13 am

    Perhaps you had earlier stepped in some (thing that flies would find attractive). A remnant of such a substance may have remained on your heel, thus causing the observed arthropodic perambulation.