The Processionary Caterpillars

Posted on 03 October 2019 by LeslieM

Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915) was a French naturalist. He was the author of many works on insect life, remarkable for their vivid and minute observations and received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1910. One experiment he performed on Processionary Caterpillars struck a profound chord in my heart, allowing me to appreciate what Rosh Hashanah can mean for us today.

The Processionary Caterpillar is so named because what makes this little furry insect unique is its instinct to follow the caterpillar in front of it in a procession. Processions consist of 300 caterpillars or more, often fooling predators into thinking the caterpillar processions are snakes. It is a fascinating and charming sight to behold, as they move along nose to tail and in the likeness of a miniature train, with their eyes half-closed, searching for food.

Jean-Henri Fabre took a giant flower pot and placed an abundance of the caterpillars’ favorite food (juicy green leaves) at its center, and then he enticed the lead caterpillar to start circling around the circumference of the flowerpot’s rim. The other caterpillars followed suit in a tight single-file process. Fabre then succeeded in getting the lead caterpillar to connect up with the last one, creating a complete circle, which moved around the pot in a never ending procession; the head of one caterpillar touching the rear end of the caterpillar in front of it. Each caterpillar followed the one ahead, thinking that it was in search of food.

Fabre was certain that after a few circles of the pot, the caterpillars would discover their predicament or tire of their endless progression and veer in another direction. But they continued their circle. Fabre thought that after a day or two, growing hungry and tired, one of them will break out of the circle and head for the food. But, quite unbelievably, seven days and nights passed and not one of them would break the pattern to fetch the food in the center of the pot, less than six inches away.

The end of the story? Each one of the caterpillars died of exhaustion and starvation. 

Not one of the caterpillars stepped out of line. So they all died.

Human Caterpillars

Is it not true that so many of us humans, in our own way, suffer from similar patterns? How many of us often fall into their very pattern of following the masses at the expense of our own food laying right there in middle of the flowerpot? Deep in our hearts we often know that we should or should not be doing something or saying something. But we just fall into the “herd mentality” trap. We know that what we have been doing for so many years is really not nourishing us, but we can’t get ourself to leave the cursed circle. We’d rather die than step out of line.  

We’ve all seen footage of people breaking out into a stampede on Black Friday and trampling others at Target. Viewers often make fun of these groups, wondering how so many customers could be so stupid. But the crowds aren’t really thousands of individuals making dumb decisions. The crowds are just crowds; that’s what crowds do.

We are programmed to follow herds, explained superstar Israeli economist Dan Ariely in his new book, Dollars and Sense, and businesses make use of this mentality. Have you ever been stuck waiting with a group outside a music venue when the spacious building could easily let you all in? They might be keeping you there to get passersby to come to the show.

We assume that, if other people are doing something, then it’s a good idea.

“That’s what we are designed to do,” Ariely says “It’s not something we are aware of.”

This tendency can be dangerous. When fires break out in crowded movie theaters, everyone often runs to the same door and gets stuck in a bottleneck, even when there are two other side doors going unused. It’s very hard to say, ‘Everyone’s running in that direction. Let me sit here and think and look carefully around.’

Like wildebeests on the Serengeti running from lions, our species depends on a tendency for many people to act like one big animal.

This same mental tendency helps us build skyscrapers together and distribute food around the world. It just also means we can be indiscriminate about which groups we join. If you’re in a group, your mind isn’t always your own.

Yogi Berra

The legendary baseball player, Yogi Berra, who died in Sep. 2015, was once asked by his wife: “Yogi: you were born in Missouri, you live in New Jersey, and you played with the New York Yankees. So when you die, where should I bury you?” 

Yogi replied: “Surprise me!”

Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur says: Surprise yourself. Step out of line! This year, give yourself permission to cross the imaginary or real lines that hold you hostage. Transcend the mold.

Surprise yourself. Don’t be predictable. Do it differently. People put all types of limits on themselves, inspired by fear and trauma and status quo. This year — break out.

LeShana Tova

Rabbi Tzvi Dechter is the director of Chabad of North Broward Beaches, located in the Venetian Isle Shopping Center at 2025 E. Sample Rd. in Lighthouse Point. For all upcoming events, please visit www.JewishLHP.com.

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