An Ostrich on top of a Mountain
“There are people dying . . .”
Living up on a mountain in the deep woods of central New Hampshire, not a lot happened. This was torture for a fourteen-year-old, but looking back, the fact that not a lot happened up there was both that area’s weakest and strongest points. It was a low-crime, high-trust, and most importantly, low-technology place to grow up, and though I wonder what life could have been like had I came of age somewhere where things actually happened and there was opportunity to do more, I might not have been the same person: I could’ve been better, but I doubt it.
Fourteen. This would put us in or around the summer of 1995.1 Bill Clinton is wrapping up his first term in office and the 1996 election season is in full swing. It is the 50-year anniversary of the U.S.‘s dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The San Francisco 49ers won their then-record fifth Super Bowl that year behind Joe Montana’s successor Steve Young at quarterback. The History Channel is launched.2 Mexican singer Selena is shot to death by a crazed fan. Former football star and actor O.J. Simpson is found “not guilty” of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her boyfriend Ron Goldman. The Smashing Pumpkins release Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The Alfred P. Murray federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma is bombed by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, killing 168. In other domestic terrorism news, the Unabomber was still on the loose. Toy Story is released in theaters.
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Israel and Palestine were at war.
And there I was, sleeping soundly with the windows opened to catch the night breeze, the near total silence of the forest my only companion, when I heard that voice.
“Oh God, no. No. Please stop.”
It sounded like a woman, and she was crying.
At first I thought it was the vestiges of a dream. I lay there, waiting for a few moments to confirm it was in my mind before letting myself drift back to sleep, when I heard it again: “No, no, stop no.”
It was definitely real and definitely a woman.
Her sobbing was not hysterical, nor loud. It was the resigned tears of someone who knows her tormenter (rapist?) is going to do what he (she?) is going to do no matter what, but still holds out some hope that a long-dormant remnant of humanity might respond to her pleas.
I was out of bed now, leaning with my ear near the screen, trying to hear more. Where was it coming from? Impossible to say. The forest was vast, and though I knew the road to town was through the woods near my room, sound often carried. Sometimes we’d hear loud tires screeching or sirens come from the roads and highway we knew were way down the mountain. So this could be happening a mile a way for all I knew. Voices carry.
I felt frozen with a fear I couldn’t explain. My pulse quickened and my breath grew shallow. Why? Why was I so frightened? This wasn’t happening to me. I guess it was fear of the unknown and fear of what would become of me if I didn’t do something to help a person in need.
What I did was wake my dad. “Dad there’s someone outside. They sound like they’re in trouble. Outside my window.”
My father was at full alertness nearly instantly. We spoke in hushed whispers to not wake the rest of the house. I filled him in and then we waited by the window, listening for the voice again.
And we waited some more. But the voice didn’t come.
We looked at each other. “I swear I heard it,” I told my dad. He nodded. He believed me. My next question was obvious: “So what do we do?”
My dad looked back at the window and thought about this. We had a short conversation. What can we do? We could call the cops, but tell them what? We have no useful information. We have no idea if this was going on miles from our town, or from which direction with any specificity. There was nothing we really could do.
This was not a cop out. Even back then I knew that. But it still felt like one. It never sits right to be helpless, to know that any action you could take would be pointless save for making you feel better. The urge to “do something” is to assuage your soul, not just to make the world a better place. Sometimes the two desires are linked and work towards achieving a positive end. Does one with a guilty conscience working to help others do a good thing for the wrong reason? Maybe, but I get it. Is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, on balance, bad? I think it can be, yes, but I get it.
Outcomes and intents. Means and ends. A tale as old as time.
I cannot read the news about some far off atrocity without thinking about that night. Media outlets strive to outdo each other with breathless reporting of the latest grotesquerie, not just to get ratings, but to spur an emotional reaching that will make the people authorize those in charge to do something about the latest cause du jour. Because despite what we learned in civics class,3 we are powerless too.
Maybe that’s not the worst thing to be in every case. Maybe, when there’s a war half a world away involving matters that have nothing to do with us, maybe it’s good not to have a strong urge to take action—or have our government take action. Because we know how it ends, and it’s ugly and to our detriment. I’ve never understood why “freedom and democracy” has to mean celebrating overseas inter-ethnic conflicts spilling out into American streets, but I didn’t go to the Ivy Leagues, so what do I know? I just know that the world has been on constant fire for generations and I’m supposed to believe it’s not deliberate.
The urge to want to help is a good thing, and I think a proof of God. But where was He, to help that women? Or the poor and suffering everywhere? “If God real why bad thing happen?” So goes the meme criticizing those who use the existence of evil as proof against God.
But evil has been a part of human nature almost since there were humans. Christianity accounts for this in the story of the fall. We chose to disobey and we choose to do evil now. We also choose to do good when we can and abstain from evil.
I’m not a theologian but I had a thought: remember, God is the Father. Trying to protect humanity from its own bad choices, especially those that hurt others, is a maternal instinct, a motherly trait. A father is more apt to allow harsh things to happen in order for his children to understand that choices have consequences, that they are meaningful. If God bailed us out of every bad situation, I don’t think we could truly say we have free will.4
The frustrating thing for many, which I understand, is that far too many will never face justice here on Earth, and that the evil hurt so many in the process. But they will face it in the fullness of time. And while they are alive, there is still a chance for the evil to make the choice to turn away from the darkness.
It doesn’t feel good to be helpless. I suppose the best we can do is to do what we can for us and ours and try our damndest not to hurt anyone else along the way. It is not our place to “heal the world.” We can help our own part of it. “If everyone had that attitude,” et cetera and so on, but for real: we would be better off.
But I tell you, sometimes I wish I was back up at my old house in the middle of the woods on top of a mountain, the cries of the outside world only distant, directionless echoes from afar.
Memory is a funny thing. I think I was 14, but I could’ve been older or younger. All I’m certain of is that it was during the summer.
It didn’t used to just show things about aliens and Hitler. It used to just show things about Hitler.
Some of you below a certain age likely have no idea what a civics class is.
That there are many who already think we don’t have free will is fine. In before you accuse me of ignoring this fact.