Walking the Line
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The day had finally arrived. One I had been waiting for all my life. All six years of it. I was about to get to go hunting with my Father, Uncles and Grandfather. Pheasant hunting. I had my cowboy hat and toy guns laid out the night before. Everything was ready. I was up hours before anyone else. It was still dark. Going over and over all my hunting ‘equipment’.
After what seemed like a breakfast that would never end, we finally all headed single file up the road to the southern end of our property. The field we were to hunt was about a 1/3 of a mile wide and a mile long. All the men loaded their shotguns. Shaking with excitement that I was trying to hide, I made quite a show of carefully loading both my toy ‘cap’ guns, that hung from my gun belt wrapped snugly around my waist. (They were toy guns that looked like old west revolvers, that fired a roll of caps.) The men joked and laughed at me a bit, but I was undeterred. “One never knows”, I remember thinking.
“Caps” were small dots of gun powder that were embedded on a narrow strip of rolled up paper. When I fired my guns, the hammer of the pistol would strike one of those dots of gun powder, producing a ‘bang’, a little flash, and the smell of burnt gun power, as smoke curled out of and up from the pistol’s barrel, and, if everything worked well, the next ‘cap’ would move up into firing position awaiting the next pull of the trigger.
I was finally going hunting with the men, but it was well understood that the only help I wouldn’t be in supplying any food for dinner, was to do what I was told, not get in the way, and ‘walk the line’. That meant that I and the others would form a somewhat straight line and walk 15-20 yards apart the length of the field, towards the other end, with the idea of making enough of a commotion so that the ground nesting pheasants would be flushed out and up from their cover into flight, and would be shot as they flew away. I was determined to be a perfect ‘line walker’, because I wanted to be invited back the next time.
It was a crisp fall day. As we began walking the line, I could see my breath hanging in the air. As I looked down the row, I saw all the other men walking, guns cradled against their chests, seemingly lost in thought. Not a word was spoken, and I turned back to watch where I was going.
They weren’t talking. Would my asking questions spoil the hunt? I decided to stay quiet. I kept looking to make sure I wasn’t getting too far ahead or lagging too far behind. About 5 minutes into the hunt I was startled by a movement right in front of my left foot I jumped back, thinking it was a snake. But then I saw it was a rabbit. I had seen rabbits run before, but not like this one. She ran in the familiar zig-zag ground pattern for a little bit and then began bounding. Bounding like a kangaroo. I had never seen a rabbit bound into the air. Covering 5-10 yards in a perfect arc, then again in another direction, always away from us. I was transfixed. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. A perfect picture of grace, and power, speed and determination as she tried to find her way to safety. As I looked towards my dad to say something, I saw that he had spotted her and had leveled his shotgun.
I turned back to the rabbit, saw her take another leaping bound and KABOOM, in mid-flight she was swatted out of the air like a bird flying into a window. I was shocked. My ears rang. I’d not heard something that loud in my life. I thought we were pheasant hunting. Why did he shoot a rabbit? “Great shot”, my grandfather said, “lucky”, one of my uncles joked, everyone laughed. Except me.
Next thing I heard was what sounded like a baby crying. A baby? There were no babies out here in the middle of the field. Then I realized the crying was coming from where the rabbit had landed. Following the screams, I ran up to where she lay, and it was her. Her cries sounding just like a baby’s desperately trying to get mom’s attention. In between the screams, a familiar whimpering. Pleading.
I stood over her, not knowing what to do. My father came up, put his foot on her head, and while holding his shotgun in his left hand, reached down with his right hand, grabbed her tail and jerked up. The whimpering stopped. She was dead. No longer suffering.
I innocently asked why she had been screaming and crying. “Was she hurting”? “Is that why she was crying? My dad answered, “No, don’t be stupid, animals don’t have feelings like we do, those are just the sounds a rabbit makes”. He saw the tears in my eyes, the other’s gathered around did too, and laughed. He then picked her up, stuffed her into the pouch in his hunting jacket and we continued on. The rest of the day, I bore the brunt of their jokes, mocking, ridicule and teasing.
I couldn’t get her cries out of my head. Still can’t 70 years later. It didn’t make sense to that six-year old little boy. Today I understand.
I said nothing for the rest of that day. We did scare up some pheasants and some of them were shot and some got away. I secretly and silently cheered them. No one noticed. That was the last day I went hunting or ever wanted to. I knew that animals did have feelings. That they hurt like I do.
Growing up on a farm there was a good deal of slaughtering of beef and pigs. I could never stand to be around when that happened. I could never look. If I could, I avoided the whole spectacle. When I was offered the chance to shoot them, I always declined and was mocked for that. I wasn’t a real man. Didn’t quite measure up. Could never be a real farmer. Or a real man.
I told you earlier that now I understand. At the beginning of this missive, you see a line that has numbers. We are all on that line somewhere. What that line represents is a concept in Social Science that has been identified as our prosocial or non-prosocial orientations. Prosocial means that our initial orientation or reaction to situations that we encounter is towards the well-being of others. Non-Prosocial means that our initial orientation is self-interest.
Research suggests 60% of us (Prosocial’s) feel pain when we see others (human and otherwise) experiencing some kind of pain. It’s genetic. We have a neurological and physiological reaction to witnessing unfairness, indecency, racism, sexism, gender bias, injustice, unethical behavior, inequality, mocking, victimization and similar things that humans can do to others. It’s been shown that to some degree or another (0-10, with 10 being high) our brain’s pain receptors are triggered when we see such things happening to others or experience it ourselves. “Bleeding heart”, “hyper-sensitive” and other terms are sometimes used by others to describe us. We tend to put other’s interests before ours. WE are moved to do something about what we are seeing to relieve our own pain.
For humankind, throughout history this has been a benefit, (thus the 60% number), it could be suggested, because together we can do things that none of us can do alone. Concern about the safety, security, well-being and wellness of others has guaranteed our species survival, up to this point in human history. It is very difficult for us to change our perspective, since there seems to be strong genetic factors in play. Having another person suggest to us that we shouldn’t care so much, doesn’t work.
The other 40% of us (Non-Prosocial’s) do not have the same reaction to the things mentioned above. Unfairness, indecency, racism, sexism, gender bias, injustice, unethical behavior, inequality, mocking, victimization, etc. go un-noticed, denied, defended, or minimized in importance and significance. Our genetics are such that when we witness these things, our brains do not register pain. Even if we are the source of them. We may see them, even acknowledge them, but we are numb to them and not motivated to do anything, because other factors (what’s in my best self-interest?) are more important. We may actually enjoy and celebrate what we see. Some of us (near the +10 on the Non-prosocial scale), will actually seek ways we might be able to take advantage of the situation to enrichen our position. To gain take advantage of the situation.
What I take from all this is that depending on our predisposition, (Prosocial-other interest 60%, or Non-Prosocial self-interest 40%) our ways of experiencing the world we live in, is the basis of friendships, and reveals our political, economic and spiritual fault lines. Currently, the way I see it, there are men and women, (the non-prosocial-self-interest oriented 40%), in control and are “walking the line” with guns in hands, who, among other things, are responsible, in one way or another, for the deaths of 48,000 (and counting). Not rabbits, but of my fellow human beings, right here in America, right now.
I’m one of the 60%. That’s probably not a surprise to anyone reading this. Those things, unfairness, indecency, racism, sexism, gender bias, injustice, unethical behavior, inequality, mocking, and victimization matter to me. A lot. Much more than whether my 401K is up.
60% is an important number. I hope my fellow Prosocial’s will help me do everything possible to take the guns out of the hands of those “walking the line” this November. Please let none of us forget what we have and continue to witness. My north star at this moment in time, is “Speak up”. “Show up”. “It’s time’.
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness” - Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor