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THE LAB RAT

    Once a lab rat had a pre-existing condition.
    This fact made for an uneasy relationship between it and the other rats crowding the medical research cages that stretched from end to end of the immense, sanitized room where they all were housed.
    How could it have survived this long, the other rats asked themselves? Not just survived the pre-existing condition but also the rounds of the white-coated lab assistants who patrolled the aisles between cages looking for “anomalies” and dispatching them with one swift twist of the neck. What place was there for such a rat in a room dedicated to flawless specimens? 
    The very presence among them of an imperfect rat called into question the guiding confidence of their lives that whatever one might suffer individually, however confining one’s caged life might seem and whatever the horrors of one’s eventual end, it could always be said these hardships were for the good of the planet at large. The future health and happiness of total strangers made whatever fate lab rats themselves must suffer worthwhile. Countless beneficiaries yet unborn would look back on their sacrifice, their charitable “beau geste,” with gratitude. A defective lab rat compromised that gallant promise, pure and simple.
    The rat in question understood the uneasiness its very presence caused the others and accepted their resulting aloofness. What else could it do? Protest the injustice of its treatment? It would be wasting its breath. Naturally the healthy rats, to keep up their faith that altruistic sacrifice gave their lives a meaning, would feel a need to shun any in their midst whose flawed existence suggested the contrary. Expecting otherwise was naive, the rat knew.
    So it didn’t lament the fact that no shining future stretched away beyond its narrow cage. Tomorrow had little meaning when the limits of today defined one’s existence so utterly. Every time it glanced out from its confines, the rat was reminded that the blunt fact of its pre-existing condition rendered the world in front of its nose the same as the world behind it. Neither dreams nor disappointments separated the two. 
    This awareness, rather than increasing the lab rat’s own discomfort, had a strangely opposite effect. In a way it only dimly understood, the very unlikelihood that a transcendent purpose to its life would be revealed in some distant yet-to-come made every moment of today more intensely present and replete. This pre-existing condition, in short, became precisely what reassured the rat it was alive.
    Released from the burden of defining itself by the hoped-for praise of its end, the rat was free to savor the sweet cheer of simply having survived against the odds a little longer. While each “little longer” gave it another chance to feel the elation of knowing accidents of nature like itself occur at all. Without its flaw, then, life would not be life to the fullest.
    The delight that spread across the rat’s face at such moments did not go over well with the occupants of neighboring cages, as can be imagined. It was bad enough to have in their midst a defective rat, casting doubt as it did upon the standards that defined their own soundness. But to have this blot on their prospects for an exemplary exit actually sit there in its cage with an expression of utter bliss was intolerable. 
    How dare it smile the smile of its imperfection.