“Matteo squashed a lizard and Davide cried”

In one of my earliest memories, on a warm sunny morning, I am in my school backyard with my teachers and schoolmates. Something catch my attention. On a sidewalk, I see a small, motionless lizard. Maybe it is injured, or perhaps it is already dead (it is in the nature of childhood memories to be uncertain). What I know is that I bend over it in awe: “There is a lizard!” I say to my friends with the typical enthusiasm for the small things of a six-year-old.

I do not remember what I expected; if I wanted to help or just look at her. What I distinctly remember, though, is that before I could even move, Matteo — one of my schoolmates — got close and squashed the lizard with his foot (the image of the disemboweled lizard is probably the most detailed image of all). At that point, I start inconsolably crying, drawing my teacher’s attention. When they ask me what happened, I tell them of the poor lizard in between my sobbing.

This story would be just like many other childhood stories. However, what makes it interesting — I’d say borderline surreal — is what happened after.

As soon as we came back in class, for some goddamn reason, my teachers decided that the phrase “Matteo squashed a lizard and Davide cried” should had been the example phrase that all my class used to learn to read and to write for the rest of the year. It became the phrase repeated in upper case over and over for entire pages. They were the words read and repeated loudly in class. At some point, it was also hung up on my class’ walls with colorful characters. Somewhere at home, I should still have my old notebooks full of childish drawings of the infamous scene: two kids, one smiling and the other with cerulean tears, and, in between, a small lizard pouring red crayon marks all over the place.

At the time, I hated that daily reminder of my embarrassing fragility. It made me furious and ashamed. It wore me down. A psychologist, maybe, could use this story to trace back the origin of my difficulties in showing emotions. It would make sense: it is better to keep tears inside than face once again such public humiliation.

Then, though, that same event assumed more positive colors with the passing years. Like many things that look terrible at the moment, there is always a chance that from them can arise light and strength. That “shame” became the symbol of my “different mind.” In a certain sense, it became the origin story of my ethical understanding. That gesture of instinctive, glaring, great compassion for one of the thousands of common lizards still describes the philosophy of life and the ethic I try to implement every day.

Then, for many years, that memory sank deep into my mind, and I stopped thinking about it.

Until I started reading fragments of Hierocles’ Elements of Ethics, a stoic philosopher who lived between the first and second century C.E.

I don’t want to go too much over it, but just to summarize: one of the main element topics is about “self-perception” as the “initial and dominant faculty” of all living beans (men and animals alike).

One of the primary human advantages is the ability to extend this emotion of “self-love” toward the extern. It is the concept of oikeiosis (οἰκείωσις), a word usually translated with “appropriation” or “familiarization,” but whose meaning is more evident if we look at the root of the word, oikos, meaning “habitation.”

Hierocles explain this with a famous image of “concentric circles.” We are all born with the first circle: love for ourselves and self-preservation. Then, we get familiar with our parents and start to project on them the same attachment (love) we think for ourselves. Then, we do the same for our entire family. Then, for our friends.

But why stop here? Hierocles argues that any virtuous man and woman should always try to extend such circles outward. Encircling our town, our country, until we enclose all humanity with the same feeling of love we would reserve for ourselves.

But this is not the end. Modern interpretations add an additional circle: the entire Earth: a circle that includes plants, insects, dogs, cats, cows, and, of course, lizards.

You may ask: what’s the point with the opening story? Easy. When I was reading about circles and familiarizing myself with more living beings, I could not stop thinking about that boy crying for a lizard. I felt it would not be difficult to explain to him the necessity of extending the circle of affection to that lizard.

This raised another question. Do we start centered on the self, as Hierocles said, or do we start with a broader circle that we let shrink with time? Of course, my mate Matteo, who crashed the lizard, evidently had different circles in his mind. But then: how fast do they grow, and what influences them?

I don’t know. There are more questions than answers. I didn’t even intend to answer them when I started writing. But instead, I know that writing this made me feel like I have finally closed that weird chapter of my life. And it made me understand that I am a bit very proud of the child I was.

This article was originally posted in Italian on Medium on April 2021.

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