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Opinion | The Summer of Cicadas Can Teach Us to Be Kinder

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After more than a decade sipping tree sap underground, as many as a trillion cicadas are now emerging en masse for a blockbuster bug bash, a meeting of two broods that have not surfaced at the same time in over 200 years. Some people are calling it the cicadapocalypse, but this once-in-a-lifetime event is cause for jubilation. It may even make us better people, at least for a while.

The cicadas’ loud, rhythmic songs will reverberate from trees across 16 states, the latest rare, natural wonder to capture public interest. Like the recent solar eclipse and the Northern Lights in the United States, such natural phenomena can take us outside ourselves — and literally take us outside — allowing us to feel awe-struck.

Such experiences are critical to making us happier and kinder. Psychologists have found that the wonders of nature can inspire a collective sense of awe that we are often missing in our daily lives, prompting people to share, care and assist. That suggests our focus on this extraordinary cicada event may help us feel more connected and part of something larger, and we may consequently act more generously and compassionately.

That doesn’t mean I’m all cicada love. When a cicada group snagged headlines and blanketed the sidewalks of Washington, D.C., in 2021, I wasn’t exactly overcome with rapture, as the large insects repeatedly flew into our baby stroller and amassed on our windshield.

But it was valuable to take the time to notice their sheer volume and learn that they are widely misunderstood — they don’t bite and aren’t poisonous, and your pet won’t get sick from eating a small number of them. It reminded me that though humans are apex predators, we are part of a greater system. Being part of that experience alongside my fellow Washingtonians helped build camaraderie. Strangers who otherwise may have avoided eye contact looked up and stopped to talk, even if it was just to complain about the cicada swarms.

Similar conversations may now be occurring in the South and the Midwest, though reactions to the cacophonous cicada event are mixed. Last month, the Newberry County sheriff’s office in South Carolina reported that it had fielded a wave of concerned phone calls about the cicada sounds — they can sound like a siren, a whine or a roar. “Unfortunately it is the sounds of nature,” the sheriff’s office said in a Facebook post. In Chicago, the dual emergence has led to more creative collaborations, fueling a summer-long cicada art project.

Maybe we’re wired to embrace one another after such events to help us function in society. John Zelenski, a psychologist at Carleton University in Ontario, has explored how exposure to nature affects our decision-making. He and his colleagues published research in 2015 that found when a group of undergraduates were split up to view short nature videos or videos about topics like architecture, the students who viewed the nature videos subsequently tended to act more cooperatively and in ways that supported sustainability in a simulated group fishing task.

This is unsettled research, but Dr. Zelenski does believe that, at the very least, these shared experiences could result in a positive mood boost. I really hope that’s the case.

The cicadas will spend the waning days of their short lives in bacchanalian fashion, seeking to sing, mate and lay eggs before they perish. But their mere presence is one of the world’s remaining mysteries: Scientists still don’t truly understand why the bugs appear in such specific and distinct cycles.

Each bug, with its clear-membrane wings, bulbous eyes and sturdy body, is a striver, worthy of celebration. The cicada’s buzzy behavior, including the calls to attract mates and register alarm, will help ensure that, in the years to come, brood members will rise again on their respective 13-year and 17-year timelines.

If all goes well, descendants of the two cicada broods will sing together again in 2245, hopefully inspiring awe anew.

Dina Fine Maron’s work has appeared in National Geographic, Scientific American, Newsweek and elsewhere. Aaron Hardin is a photographer based in Jackson, Tenn. These photos were taken in Nashville and Mount Pleasant, Tenn.

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