The Sacrifice of Silkworms

At this same time last year, my two hundred or so silkworms were munching on mulberry leaves and fattening themselves up for the next era of their life (or lack thereof).

In Chinese, the word for silkworm is 蚕宝宝, or silk baby. And they were truly innocent (I would hug them, but they squish so easily).

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Yesterday I talked about vulnerability. Silkworms epitomize that, perhaps. The entire larvae stage of their lives revolves around the act of eating and being entirely dependent on their conditions. It’s a wonder their species has been around for so long. I would have to go handpick the one kind of leaf they would eat, fresh mulberry, and it couldn’t be too hot, or cold, or in the sunlight, or too wet, or dirty, or noisy for them to live and grow well. And grow they did. As soon as they hatched they were eating and growing.

The little white angels in a cruel world. Even their excrement is clean enough to be used for pillow filling. They nibble and do harm to none and seek no further joy than the simple fact of their existence. No wonder I could watch them for hours.

But that one long feast of mulberry leaf – is the first and last time they will ever eat. When they start spitting silk, they will never stop until they have used up every bit of silk that is left inside their tiny little fat white bodies. And when you see it that way, what they have stored up is not very much, but just enough.

One time, I damaged the cocoon of one of my silkworms, and it had to begin weaving again. That’s the risk it took, procuring the white stuff from its bowels. I remember that one of them ran out of silk, curled up, and died, never completing its transformation.

Silkworms, like butterflies, have to die once at the risk of not living again, only they are all the more unselfish. We want the butterflies to hatch a second time to admire their beauty, but we boil the silkworms when they are the most defenseless and turn them into thread.

(Note: We didn’t boil ours, but let them turn to moths before they died. Like humans, they die anyway though. Does it matter? Perhaps.)

I like to think that they live their tiny lives to the fullest anyway, no matter what external happenings arise.

If our own death is just another step in the life cycle, will we have used up all our silk before we have gone? Will we be brave enough to? Are we dedicating all our waking hours to growing, not necessarily physically, but in intellect, strength, character?

Yes, perhaps the silkworms understood the risk of their last endeavor just as well as we do, when we fear using up all our talent and energy that we have now for the possibility of something not guaranteed in the future. But there’s perhaps a greater risk not to try.

And on that sobering note, even in that worst case scenario where you do get boiled alive, at least you’re going into the making of one of the most beautiful materials on the planet: silk. Which beats not trying at all. If you can’t live remarkably, then die remarkably. 

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