Monday, 15 May 2017

Guilt and the Learning Process.

When I was around ten years old I was taken out by two older boys and shown how to use an air rifle. I took careful aim, squeezed the trigger, and a crow fell dead at my feet. One of the other boys pressed it with his foot to make it squawk, and they both laughed.

I felt terrible. I felt like a sick and twisted being. I felt a sense of guilt which has never completely left me. (I later discovered that guilt usually diminishes with the years, but rarely goes away altogether. It’s different if you don’t feel guilt at all; then you’re a psychopath.)

Today I was watching the birds on the feeding table and a little ditty flew by as they often do when I’m musing.

And now the little birdies
Are all my bosom friends
I sometimes wonder why that should be so

I think I might be feeling
The need to make amends
For what I did those many years ago

I’ve wondered ever since how I could possibly have taken the life of an innocent creature just to demonstrate that I could fire a gun accurately. Maybe I didn’t realise the essential wrongness of it until the grisly fruit of my expertise was lying lifeless a few inches away. Maybe that was when a simple truth became obvious to me: that the taking of a life is irreversible. (And maybe that’s what fixes the guilt in perpetuity.) Or maybe I assumed I would miss. I don’t remember.

(I later became something of a marksman of note. I won prizes for fair ladies in fairground shooting booths. I was able to argue with a Royal Marine sergeant that the sights on my rifle were misaligned and he was forced to concede the fact. But I never shot at anything living ever again.)

So how do I make sense of the fact I took the life of a creature which I didn’t need to eat in order to survive, and which offered me no threat? How do I honour the bird by applying some objective purpose to its demise?

Maybe life itself offers an answer. I don’t know what it’s about any more than anybody else does, but my favourite suspicion is that it’s some sort of long term learning process. And maybe the best way to learn the wrongness of an action is to perform it and feel the consequent guilt. Maybe that’s it. It’s about the best I’ve got.

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