Cockroaches and angels

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Flynn Campbell
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Flynn Campbell

By Elizabeth Flynn Campbell

Often when something really good is about to enter our lives, something really rotten seems to come out of nowhere. Like the time many years ago when my husband and I moved from our minuscule New York City apartment into a relatively spacious two-bedroom on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. We’d been on the waiting list for the larger apartment for years and so were overjoyed when we were told we had finally made our way to the top of the list and could move in the next month. All went well until, on our first day in the new place, I happened to pick up the housewarming plant my husband had left on the windowsill as a surprise, and watched as an army of roaches swarmed out from underneath. A quick check of every room revealed swarms everywhere: our lovely, new apartment overlooking the East River was infested!

We were told by the management that the new kitchen appliances, which had been moved in weeks before, must have contained the insects, and that the apartment would be exterminated and roach free within a few days —which, mercifully, it was. We were also told we wouldn’t be charged rent for the first month, and we were not; and this inspired my cockroach theory of good versus evil.

The theory works like this: whenever something really wonderful is about to happen to us, whenever we are taking a big step forward along a good path in our lives, we can expect some kind of ominous, dark cloud to appear and seem to threaten to ruin everything. Our challenge throughout the storm is to recognize the dark cloud for what it is: a passing shadow that temporarily obscures the progressive movement forward that underlies all spiritual hope.

Most spiritual traditions are rife with stories about the drama between cockroaches and angels – that is, they all attempt to teach us about how ultimately distracting and inconsequential cockroaches are, compared to the unceasing presence and grace of the divine force that created the universe. And this is true even when you can’t make the cockroaches go away—even when the cancer diagnosis comes back positive or when you’re told you’ve lost your job. No matter the spiritual tradition, at their most mature levels they all advise that, despite the bad news, we need not be afraid.

My cockroach theory of good and evil started out as a joke, but in the twenty-plus years since picking up that roach-infested plant, I’ve noticed that the best things that come into my life usually do so accompanied by some loss, challenge or seeming threat. My job then is to look for angels, so to speak, which help remind me that in the end, nothing can separate us from the source of all love.

Reading and watching the news these days, it’s easy to see the cockroaches that are infesting all corners of civilization and causing great suffering and fear. But maybe they are coming out in force because we are progressing. You don’t have to have a spiritual outlook to observe that most great movements forward tend to be met with some kind of resistance. And if you pull back a bit from the daily news, it does seem that civilization is moving forward, albeit in fits and starts. During destructive and chaotic periods like the one the world is currently undergoing, I try to remind myself to look for the abundant number of angels and plentitude of goodness that are always with us, even when the cockroaches seem to be gaining ground.

Elizabeth Flynn Campbell lives in Shelburne and is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Burlington.