I could kill a person trying to harm my son.
I could kill a person trying to harm others I love or in self-defense.
I could kill a person trying to harm other innocent people if in the moment it was clear the act would save lives.
I may not have the physical tools or weapons to get the job done on a case-by-case basis. But I could muster the nerve. If the stakes were that high. I’m sure of it.
But what if the person causing harm was my father? Or my sister? Or my childhood best friend?
How long might I hesitate if this hypothetical person I’m so certain I could kill was someone who resides permanently on my “People I Don’t Want to Kill” list?
Where do I draw that line?
Of all the things I never want to do, I think killing someone ranks No. 1. And I don’t mean murder. That should go without saying. But even a “justifiable” killing. The thought of taking a life makes me very uncomfortable.
I don’t know very many people who have killed someone. The few I do are older men who were once soldiers at war. The curiosity in me has always wanted to try to coax those stories out of them. To get a sense of the feelings those memories manifest.
But I’ve always stopped short of asking because I don’t want to ask men to relive what are likely their worst memories.
Is This the World We Want?
I’ve been asking myself the following question every day for about a week now.
What is the difference between the people who matter and the people who don’t?
Where do we draw the line? Between all of the people we care about or treat kindly or help versus those we don’t care about, treat poorly or ignore altogether?
The idea popped into my head while reading Tom Shadyac’s Life’s Operating Manual. Shadyac is something of an anti-capitalist. He and I don’t see eye-to-eye on economic theory. BUT. I do respect very much where he’s coming from when he poses the very thought-provoking question: What separates the people you are willing to profit from, from the people you simply want to help?
He argues that the mindset of capitalism—always trying to maximize profits and charge as much as possible for goods and services—makes the human experience so much uglier than it should be.
For example, he says, if someone you love very much needed help—didn’t have food or clothes or shelter—you would instantly invite them into your home, and feed them, clothe them and let them stay with you (without asking for anything in return.)
Generally speaking, I think this is true of most of us.
But then we walk around major cities, or even suburban Ohio communities like where I live, and occasionally see people asking for help.
Maybe they’re really homeless and have good hearts.
Or maybe they’re really con artists.
Or maybe they’re really drunks or addicts looking to score a fix.
No matter what the situation, I submit all of those people could use help of some kind.
Everyone ranks the people in their lives relative to their specific circumstances.
But I think this is representative of the general order in which we value people.
1. Spouse/Partner/Significant other and children
2. Parents and siblings
5. Co-workers and acquaintances
6. Strangers who are like us (Social, spiritual, economic, cultural, geographic commonalities)
7. Strangers who are not like us
8. Known enemies
Where do you draw the line?
Where on this list do you decide: “That person means so much to me that I want to help them with their problem,” as opposed to your cut-off point? The place where you say: “Screw ‘em. I don’t care. I have enough problems. Let them figure it out for themselves,” or worse: “That person isn’t like me, so I don’t like them and I’m going to hurt them.”
This question about who matters versus who doesn’t makes me think about the post-apocalyptic world on display in The Walking Dead.
It truly is survival of the fittest and every man for himself.
Every stranger is a threat. Someone who might steal your supplies, murder you, or murder you so they can steal your supplies.
But often, after a warming-up, get-to-know-you period—after one of the strangers puts his or her life on the line in service of others—trust is formed.
Bonds are built.
And these strangers, these random people who didn’t care about each other days or weeks ago, morph from stranger to acquaintance, from acquaintance to friend, and (if you believe as I do that you don’t have to share blood to be family) from friend to family.
These people who were threats become people you will sacrifice everything for.
There are bad people in this world. Threats. People who in a lot of ways don’t deserve our kindness, generosity, charity, help, whatever.
An irresponsible or naïve Pollyanna-like view of life benefits no one.
But I don’t know how to muster the cynicism required to not believe that everyone deserves a fair shake. That every person deserves a baseline amount of respect and benefit of the doubt before we rush to judgment.
We don’t need to write a 10-page letter to their boss petitioning for their promotion, but being courteous to the customer service representative on the phone who is NOT responsible for our problem seems reasonable.
We don’t need to invite every kid in school to our birthday party, but smiling at them, not engaging in bullying and treating people kindly doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
We don’t need to give our weekly paycheck to the guy panhandling outside the grocery store, but maybe a sandwich and a bottle of water would serve to nourish more than just his hunger and thirst.
We allow ourselves to disconnect and then we treat people like enemies.
People who, if we were stuck in a survival situation with, might become our family.
I know a little boy who—just seven years ago—wasn’t even a figment of anyone’s imagination.
And today I love him above all else and would do the unthinkable to keep him safe.
And I want him to live in a world where we don’t scream at each other and bully people on social media and hate one another because our skin color isn’t the same or because we care about different things.
Maybe we can be one little ripple in the pond. One kind act at a time.
And maybe those acts can cause more ripples because others agree that these arbitrary barriers we put up between us and other people seems like a silly reason to completely change the way we treat one another.
And maybe good spreads.
And then maybe there are fewer 12-year-old kids in Catholic school cafeterias celebrating the release of a Cypress Hill rap song called “How I Could Just Kill a Man.”
Even if those kids do grow up wanting to be part of the solution.