A recent conversation with a friend sparked my cerebral wheels turning. He asked, knowing that I had grown up in a rural environment, whether I enjoyed shooting. Quite frankly, guns were a way of life with us growing up, never far from reach and never available as a defense. I can still hear my father intoning his paternal edict on protocol if someone were to break into our home; pretend to sleep as hard as you can, he would say. We were the sort of family that on many occasions knew in specific where our food came from. In season, apples, blueberries, strawberries, beans and sweet corn were available for us to pick ourselves. Beef may have come from an animal with whom I had been on a first name basis, even if the steer was less cognizant of their name than I. And deer were a staple. Ever out of hand, population control was a concern, both with our state authorities and with local farmers.
I can still remember the first buck that came across my sites on an opening day. As I watched it move into range and could see the cross hairs settle on its neck, little thought and no hesitancy complicated the situation. Pulling a trigger is easy. A slight muscular twitch of a few tissues in my hand and the deer, one minute magisterially ranging the hard woods, was lifeless and collapsed on the leafy, forest floor. Boys are to celebratein moments such as these, where I came from. But in the few moments I had to myself, I paused. I can still feel the sadness and yet the unapologetic realism. This was right; deer require predation else they grow sick and starve in winters. Yet it seemed strange that such a small twitch, a momentary reflex, could do such harm. And something so beautiful meeting its end requires solemnity even if it is within a cycle that governs our local ecosystem.
I know there are those who would read this doubting the sanity of anyone who could commit such a so-called atrocity. But in those moments alone with an animal that was no longer breathing, an animal that I respected immensely, the power of death came finally and everlastingly to my consciousness. Born to parents that instilled within me a dichotomy I still believe in—animals as different than people—I still could not escape death’s permanence. Having seen what all American youths have seen, death on television, in video games and in the news, does not prepare you for the awful permanence of the fact that your momentary twitch reflex has forever ended a life, even if it is an animal. I half-expected it to rise and walk away.
The lasting permanence of the act of killing stands in sharp and disproportionate contrast to the effort required. My moment alone with my slain deer changed me. It gave me pause compelling me to ponder the weight of what I had done.
Newtown Connecticut, Nickel Mines Pennsylvania, Chardon Ohio… these are places that evoke within us sadness and if we’re honest, a bit of doubt. What about us is changing? What has shifted to allow the few to violently imagine and to act on these imaginings is cause for self-doubt in us all. Maybe one of the things that has changed is the increase of the many imaginary deaths that out-measure the few actual ones. We live in an age of casual encounters with the concepts that govern us. Rather than thinking, feeling and experiencing deeply we easily view without analysis and move on without reflection. My early encounters with death included James Arness as Matt Dillon gunning down criminals that seemed a dime a dozen, hardened men who required dispatching with little thought for personalities, families or value. Rarely did anyone grieve the passed gunmen who all fell short of Dillon’s legendary skill.
Death in recent years has become a fixation with us inhabiting our imaginations. And yet it may be that death remains too unexplored, too misunderstood in our world of entitled distance. Our food appears on platters at any dining establishment and we need not picture it as it once was, swimming or grazing. It exists solely for us, at least so we think, not remembering the required symbiosis that stewardship requires and remaining unaware of the sacrifice that is made constantly for our pleasure.
I wonder if after one of these horrible school shootings the uninformed shooters half expect the victims to rise. I wonder if they can even ponder the significance of what they have done, extinguishing from this world one of the image bearers. I wonder if due to our times and the incessant entertaining if we are preprogrammed to think of death as much more temporary than it actually turns out to be.
The profound solemnity of death is mocked by the simplicity of pulling a trigger. One second after the minute, muscular twitch someone or something no longer rises, no longer breathes, no longer parents or learns, no longer reproduces. There is no more. At least this side of heaven.
Much has been written about life and the value of it. God creating ex nihilo breathing the breath of life into the first of us continues to be a symbolic image that enlightens and inspires. Worship and ethics both gain from this theologically beautiful thread. Today, we are light years scientifically from where we once were, extending preserving, protecting and healing life. But we are not just light years, but actual dimensions (ontological distance) away from actually creating it ourselves. And so it may be that we must think again about the power of endings not just beginnings.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s weighty words loom over our times:
Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death…. Even the wise cannot see all ends.
It may be that an awareness of the right sort of death, an exploration of life’s cycle and its closing moment, requires a different sort of education… one we have grown distant from in our compartmentalized and hygienic world. It may be that we should think it barbaric to benefit from the deaths of things that we know nothing of. Our world’s view, our educational system may benefit from exposure to the cycle of life in all its fullness leaving nothing out. It may be in the forethought, in the meditation ahead of time, that the disproportionately easy act of pulling a trigger gains the requisite weight to balance its outcomes.