Most people understand that by unofficial, mutual agreement you don’t talk to strangers at a bus-stop.
Neither do you speak to strangers on a bus, for that matter. It is simply not done. The rule is only broken for those few weird moments when you and another stranger are watching a couple having a domestic in the second row, while their child, sitting behind them, is incrementally decapitating a barbie doll by slamming its head in the sliding window. In such cases, I believe the first person to come up with a neutral response like “you don’t see that every day” or “wow! sucks to be them”, is permitted to instigate a small stranger-to-stranger conversation. Other than rare exceptions like that… you don’t talk to strangers at a bus-stop. And you don’t talk to strangers on a bus.
Well, considering this unwritten social contract, you can imagine my surprise when the following events took place.
I was sitting on a foot-high tiled step behind the bus-stop shelter, in front of a ten-story commercial building, and looking at my shoes. It was a very tranquil day; a balmy 24 degrees Celsius, no detectible humidity, too early in the year for flies, too late in the year for excessive pollen, and too early in the day for sleeping. As I said: just tranquil. My concentration was wandering easily from concern over the destiny of Harry Potter, to the transient fluid-mechanics that enables a bee to fly, a fly to land, land to liquefy and many other things besides. Then I deliberately stepped on an ant.
Now for me, the death of an ant had no real influence on my appreciation of the ambient tranquillity, but for the complete stranger standing beside me… Well, it appeared to incense him.
“Why did you kill that ant?” He asked me loudly.
“What?” I said, looking around for the extraordinary situation that had permitted him to speak.
“The ant you just killed, why did you kill it?”
“Ah yes, so I did. Um…” Why did I kill the ant? My answer flowed rather automatically from my cache of clichés kept for questions like this, “I Just felt like it I suppose.”
“Did you never consider how many times that ant has saved your life?”
Wow. That I did not see coming. The man beside me did not look like he thought his comment was humorous, which made him either the third authentically-crazy-person I’ve ever met, or the first thoroughly-convincing-actor. I decided to let the conversation play out, and was kinda hoping he wouldn’t kill me at the end. I said, “Huh?”
The man turned bodily towards me as if settling in for his favourite topic. “Well, let’s say that ant bit your neighbour this morning, and because of that your neighbour was delayed by precisely three seconds, which was the difference between her driving over you as she reversed out of the driveway, and her missing you.”
I looked down at the ant as I considered his story. Another ant had wandered over to it and appeared to be pausing in thought also. “So you’re saying that my answer to ‘how many times it has saved my life?’ should be ‘Once. On account of some weird neighbour hypothesis’?” Slightly cheeky response.
“No, no, no – you silly man!” He began from that point onwards to insult me at the start of his answers, “It has saved your life many more times than that! Consider how it helped its nest to take out a red-backed spider the other day. Now that spider probably wouldn’t have killed you itself, but because of its ongoing existence the other spiders near it would have had to move away to find territory of their own. This fundamental change in the spider distribution in your neighbourhood would have undoubtedly caused mischief. Nancy might have forgotten to lock up her pit-bull terrier.”
Without questioning who Nancy was I responded again, “so now the answer is ‘at least Twice?’.”
“Grrr, idiot!” (He actually growled at me!) “It could have bitten your milk container, slightly changing the pH level of a patch of ink, which had had the wrong alkalinity since manufacture. That patch of ink would have eroded through the container and allowed it to become unsealed two months too early, essentially making it go rancid and killing you or at least taking a couple of weeks off your life, but the ant prevented that from happening.”
Ok, I’d entertained him with my feigned idiocy enough. No more numerical responses. This example was so far-fetched as to be ridiculous anyway.
“These examples are all hypothetical – emphasis high-pathetic-al – what’s to say any of them actually have happened?” I said, smiling wryly at my dad-grade pun.
“No, my simple, simple padawan. I’m not suggesting that the ant has definitely saved your life in these three ways – that would be silly. However, there are, are there not, an infinite number of ways in which it could have saved you?”
He waited for my confirmation. There were now fourteen ants gathered around their fallen comrade. They appeared to be holding some kind of wake.
“Yes,” I acknowledged, “there are an infinite number of ways.”
“So out of all the infinite possibilities, one of them must surely have happened. Somehow, that ant has saved your life.”
Now I was simply offended by his logic – and slightly surprised at the guilt inspired by the ants’ camaraderie – but mostly offended by his logic. I decided to risk his retribution killing. “That does not follow at all! Supposing that there are an infinite number of ways it could have saved my life, which I only allow because any single method can be exposed to an infinite number of minor perturbations (move the dead spider a centimetre to the left, half a centimetre, a quarter of a centimetre and so on infinity)… it does not follow that any of these must have happened. You simply cannot deny the possibility of having an infinite set of false propositions. For example, if you take your infinite number of ways that the ant could have saved my life, then remove from that set any possibilities that actually did happen, you are left with a set that is still infinite, but containing no truth. It’s just like there are an infinite number of lengths that are longer than three metres, but I am still going to be 1.8 metres tall, and so none of those infinite number of lengths will describe my height.” Aha, victory to me!
He shook his head in a mildly disapproving manner, and managed to begin with an insult again. “Ah, you’re miniscule mind is so woefully restricted – you face each bump in the road like it is the destination. You have followed me in this conversation so far, but as you keep trying to stop, you’re bunny-hopping is indicative of your pathetic driving skills.” I heard a faint “Wow, sucks to be him” from further down the cue. The stranger continued, “Consider the opposite. Consider the number of ways that this ant might have taken your life. It could have bitten you, herded some bacteria-laden aphids under your toe-nails, scared the piano removalists struggling on the balcony above you, and who knows what else besides. Do you agree that this set is also infinite? That there are an infinite number of ways the ant could have killed you?”
Gulp. Trepidation. “Yes, there are.”
“But the ant did none of these things. It didn’t merely not do some of them. It did none of them. Ergo, it has saved your life in an infinite number of ways, by means of its self-restraint.”
“Ahh,” it seemed he had me there, and even though something didn’t feel right with his logic, I had had enough. Time to turn on the charm, “Well you’ve reformed me. I guess we should all be very thankful to ants and respect their lives.”
“NOOOO! You daft, daft, insensitive, moribund puddle of naiveté. You must never ever speak that way!” What had I said wrong this time? “Don’t you know how many of my friends – and you’re friends – have been killed by ants? Don’t get them wrong, they’re indiscriminate little sods. There’s not a man or dog died in the last century that wasn’t killed by ants; they save you one day so they can kill you the next!” And saying that he stamped out my ant’s well-attended funeral and waltzed away looking far too happy in my opinion.