On slugs, snails and AI

When Sister Francesca suggested to her group of twelve-year-old students we each choose an animal for nature studies, my mind floated. I did not want to go with the obvious.

‘Any creature in the animal kingdom would do,’ she said. ‘Large or small.’ 

The large ones, elephants and hippos, were too obvious. Koalas and wombats, too cute. The kangaroo a cliché. I wanted to study something different. 

Thinking back, I could have gone subversive and chosen to study a louse, or flea. A mosquito perhaps with grisly pictures of its proboscis plunging into human flesh to draw out blood.

Instead, I chose creatures from the mollusc family, snails and slugs. The soft spineless critters on the ground. 

Even though we knew slugs were good for breaking down soil, snails were a pest. To be flattened under their cracked shells, to be squished on garden paths, or thrown against walls. A cruel fate. 

Something about their soft insides: their extraordinary vulnerability, the way the hard snail shell kept its squishy insides safe, and those antennae, the way they were tucked away most of the time except when in motion. Tiny pin prick eyes at the head of each stalk as they flailed in search of the next leaf. And slugs too. Their slimy grey coats without any shell. Ugly.

Even at that age I identified with these creatures of the soil and leaves.

Years later in a session with Mrs Milanova I remember telling her my feelings as I walked up the hill to her consulting room. I had felt like a slug. Slow moving, spineless and ugly as a scabby school sore.

I have no memory of her response, but it is the last time I remember likening myself to one of those creatures from the ground, though I have dreamed of mushrooms growing from my skin, and tiny spores of black mould filamenting across my arms as though in sleep my skin had erupted and turned into something monstrous growing from within.

Esther Perel reckons there are four layers to consider when thinking about the complexity of a couple, or each individual in a couple: the societal and cultural, the context in which each of us is born, raised and lives today; the familial, the close cohort of people around us, including those who raise us from our most vulnerable infancy into young adulthood; the interpersonal, the way we relate to one another and others in the world around us; and finally the intrapersonal, the way out internal worlds guide our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Human beings in movement and relationship are complex indeed. 

In one of her pod casts, Perel describes how someone had created an Esther Perel AI bot to replace her. So that instead of approaching her for sessions, this person, who could not arrange an appointment with her, chose instead to create an ever present, ever available, Esther Perel who was there for him whenever he wanted.

And this Esther, gleaned from the many podcasts she has created over the years, was even better than the real Esther, our Frankenstein type creator argued.

Unlike Mary Wollstonecraft’s child, this bot was wonderful in all the ways Esther Perel is wonderful and this Esther never makes a mistake. She’s better than the actual Perel.

But how are we to learn if we lead our lives in the care of someone who never makes a mistake and is there whenever we want them? Perel asks

How are we to learn the frustrations of people around us getting things wrong, mistakenly understanding us, not always being available in this perfect way, if we cannot have multiple experiences of such frustrations?

The AI Esther does not allow this opportunity. The AI Esther offers no real alternatives to help expand our worlds.

The four layers Perel cites have just entered my world. First in a conversation on the crisis in the Middle East, the results of the referendum, and an essay Waleed Ally wrote about the complexity of 60 percent of Australian people voting ‘no’. How it’s not simply about racism.

Ally argues there are multiple and various reasons why people decided against giving our indigenous people a voice to Parliament and not all of it malicious.

Life is complex .

Later my family and I talked of the value of vitamin C, which I’ve been taking on my GP’s recommendation to build up immunity following a bout of Covid. I just talked my daughter and her partner in joining the ranks of those who take vitamin C. And we discussed the merits of taking the high strength 1000 milligram vitamin C, horse pill sized ones, in preference to taking the orange flavoured chewable 500 milligram version, which my daughter’s boyfriend prefers. 

All this in the realm of the interpersonal, the joyous way we privileged folks can deal with aspects of our vulnerability, very different from those who are indigenous and those in the Middle East right now. Especially the Palestinians And the complexity of all those people.

None of us are identical, which takes me back to my internal world as it wanders from one thought to the next in hasty progression. I find it hard to keep up. But this is preferable, this way of thinking of one thought, one feeling, and in between enjoying a facetime conversation with my not yet two-year-old granddaughter who has been laid low with a cold all week and is missing people in her small world. 

Her aunty E, Sarah from childcare and this morning she wants only a cuddle from her grandma. A face time call was not sufficient. She was delighted to see me on the phone, but I could not materialise into the person who could give her that cuddle. Not then when she could not understand she needs only wait one day until tomorrow and I will happily give her multiple cuddles.

She is still learning the art of waiting. Of not getting what she wants when she wants. The way Esther Perel AI might have tried to give a response to satisfy her every desire. 

But a perfect person to comfort you is not always there to comfort you. In between times there are others who can offer comport. For my granddaughter, her mother, her father, her brother, those others who come into her life. And after millions of soothing moments from others she will learn to find ways of soothing herself. But it’s a long slow process.

As for the snails and slugs of this world, those spineless creatures with their jelly like bodies, they still deserve our respect and concern.

They’re part of the ecosystem of our geographical worlds, the world we must protect for my granddaughter and her children to march into the future and experience lives of rich complexity where they too can master the art of vulnerability.