I lost a sister yesterday. While driving a familiar, but infrequent road, I saw a painted turtle in the roadway sunning himself on the roadbed. She was much too close to traffic and I was preparing to stop the car and carry her across the road, when I glanced in my rearview mirror. There were six cars and a truck behind me. Stopping on the one lane road would have required my blocking the road and inconveniencing everyone following me. I chose to keep driving and trust turtle wisdom and human nature. I knew better.
I sought to avoid the consequences of my actions. I determined to avoid the scene by returning via an alternate route, but habit worked against me and I was forced to acknowledge both the terrible anguish and aftermath of her last moments of life and my part in them. Would it have happened anyway? Even if I had stopped, would she once again find herself seeking out the warm concrete of another roadway, tempting once again the same fate? Possibly. The only thing I know for sure is that I didn't stop to render aid and assistance, when I was perfectly capable of doing so. Now there was nothing to be done. The moment had passed, but I had failed.
Shame is an interesting emotion. Those who are sensitive to it are lucky. Shame serves to guide them throughout their lives, reinforcing the difference between right and wrong, between honorable and dishonorable. Shame is what I felt from the moment I made the decision to pass her by. I knew I was not doing the right thing, and instead hoped, vainly, the someone else would. Not unlike so many of us, at one time or another. Why? The answer isn't easy to discover, and in the event that it is discovered, is even harder to face. The person I am, the person I've proven myself to be would have stopped. Who was I on that day? Who was inhabiting my body and making the calculation that my sister's life was worth less than my time?
I can recall only two other incidents where I truly felt deep shame. Once, only once, when I was in grade school, faced with taunts from classmates who were making suggestions that I was in love with a mentally handicapped student, I said something I shouldn't. I must have known it was wrong at the time, because I took great pains to make sure the student in question didn't hear me. The day passed and I mostly forgot about it until ten years later. Suddenly, with no warning, the memory came back to me. The shame hit me like a freight train. The scar remains on my heart—a reminder.
Before regaining that memory, the other incident occurred. My maternal grandmother lived with us and I loved her with all my heart. Still puberty comes whenever it comes, and sometimes hormones raise emotions and depress restraint. I was always a "good kid," but the combination of testosterone combined with oppressive summer heat and humidity made me speak quite harshly to my grandmother one day, and I made her cry. Even now, decades later, the shame I feel because of what I did is crushing. Of all the people to hurt...
My grandmother was quick to forgive—much quicker than her grandson. It was a hard lesson, but one that has stayed with me. At least until yesterday.
As I used to say, "Oh great another f**king growth experience." Okay, let's break it down. What are the lessons to be learned here? They are almost too numerous to mention.
We need to help each other.
We can't expect others to do the right thing when we won't do it ourselves.
Doing the right thing is sometimes inconvenient—to you and others.
Each of us has to value life according to our own principles.
There are people who will go out of their way to do others harm.
God's eye may be on the sparrow, but it's up to me to look out for the turtles.
On Earth, God's work is done through our hands—or it remains undone.
We have choices and the obligation to make them. To refuse to make them is also a choice.
Life is fragile and easily crushed unless we care for it.
Not everyone who needs help will ask you for it.
You need to make sure you can live with yourself when all is said and done.
I live in a place called turtle island for a reason.
I could go on, but you get the idea. My four-legged sister's sacrificed life has given me an opportunity to reflect on both my own actions and how the world works. Some people would say, "It's just a turtle." Well you could substitute whatever you want for "turtle"—"Indian," "Jew," "woman," "gay," "Black," "Arab," "Asian," "redneck," or "junkie." Does the substitution change the context for you? Does the principle remain the same? Holly's recent post seems especially apropos.
Living creatures die. It is the nature of things. It is not my little sister's death that was to be avoided, but rather my part in it. It was a very hard lesson. After all, we're all related.