The tale of the reluctant hermit crab

Something must have gone wrong for the hermit crab.

Snails and turtles get their own shells to protect their soft bodies. Hedgehogs can roll up into prickly bundles. Squid can defend themselves with a blast of black ink. Cats can scratch and dogs can bite. Birds can fly away.

Vulnerable: hermit crab with no shell.

Vulnerable: hermit crab with no shell. (Image from Wikipedia)

But the hermit crab, it seems to me, has not evolved correctly. He has a soft, vulnerable abdomen that is totally exposed to the big, bad world and all the predators therein. The hermit crab has no shell in which to hide, no barrier of protection against the things that want to destroy him, and – more than that – no home.

So the hermit crab, realising his vulnerability, sets off to explore the world around him, sans shell. And that world is beautiful, you know. There’s so much to see, so much to experience. It’s stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful – but dangerous. The hermit crab knows instinctively that he can’t just crawl around indefinitely like this, hiding under this rock tonight and that plant tomorrow. His luck won’t hold out. Something will get him. Something will hurt him.

The first time he sees an empty shell, it’s like a little light bulb lights up above his head. A home! Security! Protection! He checks it out, tentatively at first, and decides that this is the place for him. It’s a bit big, and has that uneasy atmosphere of unfamiliarity, but it’s an improvement, right? You can’t just go wandering around without a shell. You’ll get hurt. You need a home! Now he looks just like all the other crabs. He’s not the weird naked one any more.

Safe

Safe (Image from Wikipedia)

And actually, once he’s properly moved in and settled for a while in the second hand shell, he realises that it’s become a perfect fit. Sure, when he first got there, it was so big that he could retreat right back inside it and curl his whole body up so that he was completely hidden, and nowadays it seems that he can’t quite manage that, but it’s only his claws that are left poking out, and they’re tough enough to withstand whatever might come along, aren’t they?

But then some more time goes by, and suddenly the hermit crab discovers that he’s been sleeping with half his body outside his shell, and it’s getting really cramped and uncomfortable in there, and last night there was a close call when that big scary thing with teeth nearly took his leg off.

There’s no denying it any longer. As much as he loved that shell, he’s outgrown it. It’s time to move.

Can't stay in that shell forever.

Can’t stay in that shell forever. (Image from Wikipedia)

So the hermit crab moves out and moves on and moves into a new shell. This one’s bigger, and has a fancy looking sea anemone on the top. Although the hermit crab feels a bit disoriented at first, and perhaps even uncomfortable (having actually started to grow into the shape of the old shell), he soon adjusts and finds that the move was the best thing he could have done for himself. Once again he settles in and finds that he has space to grow and a safe place to hide. He’s glad he was forced out of the old shell.

But much to the hermit crab’s dismay, he finds that he keeps growing and changing. Time and time again, he gets that niggling feeling of discomfort, of having stayed too long in a shell that no longer fits him. When that happens, he becomes vulnerable once again. He gets hurt more easily; he’s at greater risk than the other hermit crabs, the ones who have shells that fit properly. He is no longer prepared for or protected against what may come along to harm him. Not only that, but he doesn’t have enough space to grow. He’s stuck. He’s suffocating. Staying put is simply not an option.

And so that is the life of the hermit crab. He moves from one temporary home to the next, each one unfamiliar and intimidating at first, but soon proving to have been a good move. He has room to grow and change and adapt, until he finds that he has actually grown and changed a bit too much for this particular shell that was once so full of potential but now leaves him stunted and stifled and at an increasingly greater risk of getting hurt. Leaving is a risk, especially as he might have to fight other hermit crabs for the next shell, meaning he could be left without any shell at all – or worse, injured or killed in the battle.

Yet, whatever the risk, the hermit crab must leave when that shell becomes too small for him. No matter how familiar and safe it feels, no matter how attached he’s become to it, no matter how frightening everything looks out there, outside of his shell. He has no choice. For a while, he can ignore the warning signs. Then he can endure the discomfort. But there comes a point where finding a new shell is the only remaining option. The transition will most likely be a smooth one; the hermit crab will find a new shell; life will go on as normal until the time comes for the next shell shift.

Another hermit crab will move into the abandoned shell. There’s no going back to the old shell.

Maybe that’s the scariest part.

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2 thoughts on “The tale of the reluctant hermit crab

  1. Emma says:

    I really liked reading this post!
    I usually pop in here every once in a while to enjoy your exeptional writing.
    but this one really spoke to me..

    Just as you are leaving Korea, I am preparing for moving back home.
    I just decided on it recently & i have begun making the necessary preparations for the move & i guess it’s finally hitting me that this is it.

    I’m scared & i feel uncomfortable but at the same time I know that this is the right thing to do for me. It’s necessary! Cause i feel stuck in this place.
    Before i made my decision to move i pondered on it a long time & it was a joboffer that finally made up my mind.
    But i still feel really uneasy about the whole thing & there are so many people i’m going to miss here.
    This is a place where I have really grown, evolved & learned to depend on myself, I guess i’m also really scared that i will change back when i go back home.

    You writing this post gives me courage!
    Because in the end we are all little hermits.
    & so many times I have felt the need to make a change or do something entierly new or go to a new place.
    But i didn’t have the courage or other people discourage me to do so & I really regret it now.

    So thank you for giving me a different perspective on why change & development is important & that we can’t always stay in the same place just because we are comfortable there.
    And thank you for pouring your heart into this blog and letting strangers like me take part of it.

    Wish you the best!
    Sincerely
    Emma

  2. This is one of your best posts yet – so well written!

    We are all evolving and changing all the time, and once you’ve moved on from one stage of your life there’s no going back. I notice this every time I’m home for a visit – it’s nice to see my family and spend some time with the few friends I have left there, but I could never go back home to live. I don’t fit in any more.

    But then, even if you stay in the same place, things change. You’ve already realised that your life in South Korea aren’t as brilliant any more as it once was (remember the “clicks”?) and it’s time for a change. Staying in your old shell won’t make it fit again.
    Onward and upward. Your next adventure awaits!

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