Last night a sudden, heavy rainstorm swept through my town.  High winds brought down electric wires, roads were flooded, and any number of branches, sticks, twigs and leaves were blown out into the streets, onto rooftops and into people's yards.  I myself spent the better part of the morning picking up the debris that had been scattered across my front and back lawns.  I gathered up torn leaves and broken branches, put them into an old wheelbarrow and carted them over to dump in a wooded lot that lies between my house and the cemetery.  Also I decided to take to the woods a small dead branch that I'd been keeping up in my bedroom as a kind of decoration.  My eight-year-old niece had happened to bring it into the house one afternoon while visiting early last summer, and I'd liked its shape:  its crooked, twiggy growth seemed to me to reveal an interesting balance within the seeming imbalance of a chance line and empty space.  I've noticed since then that many broken branches offer a similar interest in design – but that stick had been the first.  I'd leaned it up on my dresser against the mirror and for a year it had remained there.  Today, feeling that I had at last exhausted its value, I decided the time had come to discard it.

I took this stick with the others I'd gathered into the wooded lot and dumped them from the wheelbarrow.  As I was turning to go back, I noticed lying on a piece of moss at the base of a tree a small butterfly with wings of dark blue.  Its wings were neatly folded, but it was the bright upper part of the wings that showed, not the duller underside as is usually the case.  Bending down to take a closer look, I saw that instead of resting with its legs against the ground, the butterfly was lying on its back with its wings folded up over its legs.  Gingerly I touched it with my finger.  It fluttered a little, then came to rest again with its wings folded as before.  I thought:  "It must be dying."

I remembered a book I'd once read as a child of the life of a butterfly.  At the end of the book the insect lay on the ground, close to death:  weak and exhausted, it was discovered by a nest of marauding ants and torn apart for food as it lay.  This seemed to me cruel – but the book had explained that this was nature's way.  The weak and the maimed, the old and the sick, must sometimes be sacrificed in order to ensure the survival of the young and the strong.  In this manner the health of the ecosystem as a whole was maintained.

Then I remembered something else I'd once read, this time a story about a monk and a layman.  The monk and the layman were walking down a village street in their native country one day when they happened upon a starving dog.  The layman wanted to buy food for the dog, but the monk had said that this would be wrong.  Feeding the dog, he declared, would be interfering with its destiny – and so they let it be.  But this story had always seemed problematic to me.  Wasn't it possible, I'd thought, that their chancing upon the dog and feeding it was also a part of its destiny?  Once we become aware of suffering, on however small a scale, we become a part of its context.  Our destiny and the destiny of the sufferer intertwine.  Still, the monk had said that to feed the dog was not right.  Perhaps, I thought, he knew better than I.

I got down on my knees to examine the butterfly more closely.  Its legs were folded tightly above its body and its proboscis, that long, straw-like appendage used to suck nectar, was fully extended.  I knew from having raised caterpillars as a boy that when a butterfly first hatches from its chrysalis its proboscis is split lengthwise into halves; the butterfly must seam these halves together before it can drink.  Perhaps that was what this butterfly was doing now.  I looked carefully at its wings.  They were not faded or ragged at the edges, as is usually the case with butterflies that are old; but neither could I say that they looked bright and new.  Their color was a bit smudged.  It occurred to me that this butterfly may have hatched from its chrysalis, then fallen to the ground before it was quite able to fly.  I touched it with my finger again.  It flopped and fluttered about some more on the moss.

Thinking that the butterfly may indeed have been newly hatched, I ran home quickly and prepared a little sugar water in a glass.  Hurrying back with the glass to the woods, I dipped a finger into the water and held a droplet of it to the end of the butterfly's proboscis.  It grew very still, the proboscis seeming to throb faintly; I think it drank.  Then it flopped about once again on the patch of moss, perhaps a little more energetically now; but still it did not fly.  Again it came to rest with its wings folded in that curious upside-down position.  I re-examined its legs, so tightly bunched against its body; put a twig against them to see if it would grab onto it and clamber up – but the legs were rigid, completely stiff.  There was no life in them at all.  Whether the butterfly had lived its life to completion and now lay dying, or had hatched from its chrysalis somehow deformed, I could not tell.  It continued to flop about on the moss.

I did not quite know what to do.  I didn't like to see it this way and felt that, in feeding it the sugar water, I may have only prolonged its suffering.  Suddenly, and without really thinking about it, I stamped down on the butterfly with the heel of my shoe.  The least I could do, I figured, was to put it out of its misery.  When I looked again, there was only a dark blur of wings smeared against the green of the moss.

As I made my way back home again, there came into my mind yet another story I'd read.  This one was about a woman who, following an auto accident, had been pronounced dead for a time, then was revived.  The woman had later said that while she was dead she'd been made to re-experience every act performed while living, and was also made to feel the consequence of every act, both positive and negative.  She said that she'd even been made to suffer the pain of every insect she had killed.  I wondered:  Would I too someday be made to feel the pain of this butterfly's extinction?  And would that pain, which surely must not for me be great, be more than or less than the few moment's sadness I would have felt had I left the butterfly to suffer its natural fate?  For the butterfly, I would suppose this to have been the crueler death.

I think that the monk of my story, the monk who had seen the starving dog, must have once faced a similar dilemma of conscience.  Of the two courses open to him, he chose the one of non-interference.  In making this choice he revealed the meaning of – and the price paid for – the privilege of being able to apprehend each living thing's complete personal freedom in relation to its destiny.  Of course, it might also be said that in giving his advice to not feed the dog, he was interfering in the destiny of his companion – perhaps even altering the design of his whole life . . .

But that is another story.