I’ve killed my fair share of spiders. I’ve never been one to consciously support stereotypical gender roles, but I fell easily into the role of family spider-getter. There is a little kind of spider that seems to thrive in our bathroom. They appear on a pretty regular basis. With legspan about the size of a nickel, they are harmless little creatures. This week, something pretty amazing happened.
“Daddy!” my six-year-old daughter screamed. “Come quick. There’s a spider.”
At hearing such a cry, most Dads would grab a magazine or tissue. Instead, I wished I could remember where I had put my magnifying glass.
“It’s so cool,” she said, as she sat and watched it crawl along the wall and spin its web. Mesmerized by the work.
Not too long ago, this scenario would have played out much differently. When my daughter was much littler, she had no particular fear of spiders, but by the time she was four or five, she was terrified. Given where our spiders like to hang out, this posed a problem at some very inopportune times.
“Daddy!” She would scream. “I have to go to the bathroom!” Long potty-trained, I wasn’t sure why she was screaming this at me with such ferocity. “So?” I would ask.
“There’s a spider in here!” So I would go in, armed with a tissue, and “take care” of the problem. I would explain, “These spiders are harmless. They won’t hurt you. There’s no reason to be afraid,” as I squashed the little guy into oblivion.
Then I realized something. My actions and my words were incongruous. My words were saying, “Fear not.” But my actions were saying, “This spider must die!” She heard my actions much louder than my words. By killing the spider every time I saw one, I was reinforcing the idea that the spider must be eradicated. It must be feared. So I did something strange. I stopped killing them.
“Daddy!” she would scream, “There’s a spider.” So I would go in, and explain to her that there was nothing to fear. “That little guy is harmless, I would say. He eats mosquitoes, which are annoying. I’m not going hurt him, because he’s not hurting us.” She was not happy with my decision, but eventually the power of nature’s call would overcome her fear. As she did what she had to do, she wouldn’t take her eye off the little spider.
This scenario repeated itself several times over the course of a few months. Eventually the fear was gone, and it was replaced with curiosity. Until one day she found herself excited to see a spider. Well, maybe not excited, but at least intrigued.
Yes, this is a story about my daughter and spiders, but I feel like it is so much more. Too often, when confronted with something different, our default reaction is fear. What if, instead of fear, we respond with time, care, and compassion. When curiosity or empathy replaces fear, maybe there is room for something more, like learning, relationship, and friendship.