Boy holds out his hand to show me a snail. He’s kind of grunting and squeezing it, and I tell him to stop — there might be a snail inside there. He looks me in the eyes. He heard me. And then there’s a cracking sound, and he opens his hands again to show me a broken shell, and inside, a crushed snail. Boy just looks confused. I tell him maybe the snail can still find a new home and be OK, and he finds a good place for the snail in the dirt. Then we agree that next time we find a snail, we should treat him like a friend and just let him go about his business.
That was last week. A couple days ago, it almost happened all over again, except that this time, I was able to talk him down from it. Barely.
I’m not going to write about how we should be kind to all creatures, though I think we should, and I hope I can guide our kids toward that same conclusion. The snail has me thinking of something else.
The night that he smashed the snail, Boy played the scene out over and over in our living room. He shuffled around under a blanket and told me in a high voice, “Papa, I’m a snail.” I asked him if he was OK. He said yes. I asked him what I should do. He said, “Don’t squish me.” Then I asked him if he’d found a new shell, and he said that he had. He said, “Now I’m fine.” I know he wanted it to be so.
I grew up in Montana. When I was in 4th or 5th grade, my grandfather introduced me to gopher hunting. He’d drive with me in the mountains to a big clearing where, if you watched for a even just a moment, you’d see little gopher heads popping in and out of sight. We would sit next to the road, or in the back of his truck, with a .22 rifle, and just kill them. As many as we could, as quickly as we could. It was target practice. And I was a really good shot.
I did this off and on for two or three summers. How many gophers did I kill? And why? I look back at how cute they were, and in that memory, I know that I thought so even then. When I killed one and another seemingly ran to its friend’s aid, I felt that was really sweet. Gophers are neat, I’d think. Then I’d shoot the friend.
In fifth grade, I shot a rabbit in the stomach with my last bullet. It was very alive, screaming, flipping around, and the only thing I could think to do was to go and stomp on it until it was dead. That moment gave me nightmares. After that, I didn’t want to shoot for target practice anymore. A year later, I shot my first and last deer — a doe, right through the heart. But a heart shot doesn’t kill right away, so I had time to cross the field, to make eye contact before shooting her again in the neck. I don’t think I’ve shot a gun since, except maybe at a tin can. And I don’t want to.
What if that rabbit had died right away? What if the deer had? Would I have just kept shooting things until suffering had sufficiently revealed itself to me? Or was I just at an age where I was seeing my actions differently? I don’t know.
What was fun about it?
When I read the news and learn that someone just shot some kids at their school, or held a human being prisoner, or set off a bomb, I think to myself, “How could they do such a thing?” In the follow-up, we hear this kind of question a lot. And maybe it’s OK, in that moment of shock, to allow ourselves that little bit of psychic distance. But the fact is, we know the answer. We don’t know why — we can never really know why. But we can know how. We can know the mechanism of dissociation that allows us to love the life all around us and, at the same time, to hold it clumsily. To treat it as something separate from ourselves. Something already dead.
We watch it in our children. And if we’re honest, we see it in ourselves.
My son loves the creatures of the world. This morning, he waxed poetic all the way to daycare about all the flowers and how he wants to make it rain so they can grow. Yesterday, for the first time, we watched him play with a dog, and it was a vision of pure love (on both sides). But he doesn’t know what death is. He can’t imagine someone else’s pain. Not yet. We have to remind him not to hit his sister. And we can’t save the snails, not all of them.
I want to cultivate the gentle impulses my boy feels all the time. But not just that: I want to help him to learn how to understand that other part of himself, to face his own capacity to act upon others. We tell children, “You can do anything,” but we mean it in a very limited way. You can be a doctor, or You can be an artist. But the truth of it is so much more than that. You are capable of anything. The deepest act of generosity — you can surpass it. The lowest act of depravity — you’re capable of that, too.
How to learn to own it all, to integrate and understand this fragile, combustible mix? How do we best help those for whom that gap has become too much to bear, those who have broken? I don’t know. But I’m sure it doesn’t come from “How can someone do such a thing?” That’s a question we ask for ourselves, to feel separate and safe. If we want to be of service, we need to start with “Where in myself am I capable of the same?” My experience, as painful as it can sometimes be, is that if we’re honest, we can always find that place. Always.
We are snails. And we are a little boy holding a snail in our hands. This moment decides it.