Throwing Bullets on the Fire
Oh the stupid, thoughtless things we do.
Posted May 29, 2015
When we first moved to the place I would come to call home, a boy, five years my senior, knocked on the door to meet his new playmate. He introduced himself, spelled his last name, and every weekend and summer we played: Sometimes in the woods pretending we were soldiers or Indians or runaways off to find our fortunes; Sometimes down at creek, building dams or pursuing the elusive crawfish we would never admit we were too scared to catch. One Christmas day when we were taking turns with his older brother’s new toy plane, it sputtered and fell and broke. David was the one who was blamed and beaten, and I learned something about accidents and injustice.
And then there was the time when he took some of the bullets from his father’s gun and we went out behind the school. I must have been six. We gathered rocks from the playground and laid them in a ring. Then we filled the circle with sticks and twigs and leaves. A little gas and a single match was all we needed to bring the pile too flame. As the fire grew hungrier and more demanding, David reached in his pocket and fed our creation a handful of the stolen shells and we ran for shelter.
We waited. And we waited. And we waited with all of the patience and wild blood of innocent young boys. When nothing happened, we walked out into the open just before the explosions began. Just before something unseen struck the tree inches from where we stood.
I don’t know how many mistakes I’ve made in life or how many near misses there have been. Like when I touched the socket in the dark, thought I could balance on the ladder while carrying a saw, or when I looked up from the phone just in time to slam on the brakes. There have been innumerous times I acted rudely or without thinking yet was lucky enough to walk away as the shrapnel harmlessly sprayed a nearby tree.
Yet we pick up the paper each day and know that sometimes jagged scraps do strike an eye, lodge in the heart or spray the strangers who did nothing wrong. Cheaply made toy planes falter and fall. Someone pulls out in front of us while we are switching songs on the radio. We look at the mindless and senseless things that kids and grown-ups do and it is easy to blame. How can they be so stupid, so shortsighted? Didn’t they think about it for a moment? But as long as there is no ricochet or crash, we are allowed to forget that we too are irresponsible and thoughtless. Every one of us is negligent. But to be negligent and unlucky? That is a crime no one can ever shake off.
Had the bullet that day exploded and lodged in the chest of my friend, I would have been the one toward whom the neighbors would point. I would be one of the bad kids, poorly raised or unthinking. Stupid and reckless or irresponsible. I would have been the one to carry those jagged shards in my heart forever.
Luck, that blind mistress and kin to Fate, can be kind. She can be horribly cruel. We can look on our own misfortunes or windfalls or those of others, and we too can be kind or cruel. But we can be more than that. We must be more than that.
The world is neither fair nor reasonable nor within our control. Even the best laid plans fail. Even with the most fully thought out actions, there is no escape. Whether it is misuse or overuse or neglect, the things of our lives fall apart. And yet we have at our finger tips so many more tools than any fickle goddess could dream. Kindness, yes. But also, humility, forgiveness, understanding, patience. So much patience. We have the ability to roll up our sleeves and reach out a hand and help one another. And we have the fortitude to push aside judgments as useless as blame, and pick up the pieces and put them back again.
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For more on "the faults of others", see chapter 4 of Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis, Basic Books; First Trade Paper Edition edition (December 1, 2006).
A version of this story first appeared at www.JohnSeanDoyle.com.