They are superb hiding places - rock-hard, camouflaged, with a maze-like interior. Lying beneath the water, it’s hard to tell what’s inside, if anything. You must pick them up, peer inside, and even then it’s hard to be sure. As I often tell children, when the shell releases easily, there is likely a hermit crab inside. If it is firmly attached, it’s probably a snail.
The snail, of course, is the original owner, having formed the shell with its body from calcium, carbon, and other elements of the sea. It was not born with the shell, having begun life as a bit of microscopic, free-swimming plankton. Only later, when it had grown to be barely visible to the human eye, did it begin to resemble a snail and form the shell. Securely fastened to the smooth interior, it can never leave - it simply makes the shell larger and larger to accommodate its growing body. When threatened by a predator, or left high and dry by the ebbing tide, it can pull its entire body up into the shell. Then as an added measure of protection, it closes a special “trap door”, sealing itself inside until it is safe to come out. This hard, flat, dark brown piece of shell is otherwise carried atop the rear of the fleshy foot that it crawls on.
The hermit crab has a different situation altogether. It, too, begins life as microscopic plankton, but as it grows it eventually forms a hard exoskeleton just like other crabs do - except for its tail, which remains soft. This whimpy, sideways-curved little body part needs protection, so the hermit crab goes searching. An empty snail shell fits the bill perfectly; its spiral shape allows the soft little tail to bend to its curve and hold on tight! With its otherwise hardened body, the hermit crab easily lifts the shell, toting it along wherever it crawls. But whenever it grows too big, it must go in search of a new shell. When it feels threatened, it also can withdraw its body inside, but has no door to seal itself in. Not to worry - it has another method. It blocks the door with one or both of its nasty little pincers, easily repelling most would-be attackers.
When life gets tough, and hurts, some people also retreat into their own kind of “shell”. Being cold and standoffish is one way; acting belligerent and hard-to-approach is another. Some become hardened and picky; others simply slam the door shut and refuse to let anyone in. We all know people we can never get close to, no matter how hard we try. My husband's only brother, seven years his junior, abandoned the entire family over 35 years ago. No explanation was ever given and, although we know where he is, every attempt at communication has been rejected. Everyone was wounded by this - his parents most of all. Being human, we always want an answer. None has come.
I can see what a good hiding place a shell is - satin smooth inside, hard and formidable out. But I think it’s not a very comfortable or healthy place for us to be, heavy, hard and cold as it is. There is only room for one inside a shell - perhaps that’s why we were never meant to live in one.
You are my hiding place;
you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance.
Rescue me from my enemies, O Lord,
For I hide myself in you.
Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God;
may your good Spirit
lead me on level ground.
Psalm 143:9 - 10