Last summer, my three year old daughter told me she was going to her Noni’s house. At the time, my mom lived right down the street, an insignificant distance for me but a decent walk for her tiny little legs. I was in the middle of cooking dinner, and about ten minutes before that she’d told me she was going to “dance class”, which apparently was happening in the middle of the living room rug, so I replied with, “Oh, you are? Okay, bye!,” and continued on with my task. My husband arrived a few minutes later and we stood in the kitchen talking for a while before he asked where the youngest was. I shrugged and told him she’d been with her brother and cousin in the living room last time I checked. He called her, but there was no reply. We did a quick check of all the rooms in the house, thinking she was playing somewhere quietly, or engaging in a game of really poorly timed hide and seek. She wasn’t anywhere to be found.
And then I saw the open front door. The older kids had left the heavy wooden interior door open, and the storm door — the very easy to navigate storm door — was standing open a few inches. Panic blossomed faster than I’d ever imagined it could, and the next ten minutes or so were a blur of two frantic children crying and screaming as my husband and I raced around outside the house hollering for our baby, checking under cars, in bushes. One of the most awful things that has ever come out of my mouth was telling my husband, “Go check the pond!” It was right around then that I remembered what she had told me about going to Noni’s, and I took off running down the street, throwing open my mom’s door, panting, crying — and there she sat in the middle of the floor, quietly playing with my mom’s dog. I collapsed, relief like a punch to the gut, completely deflating me. Through sobs, I gathered her up and ran back down the road, yelling that I had her, that she was safe. We all hugged and kissed her and admonished her with gentle firmness to never, ever, EVER leave the house again without telling us and having our permission.
Only later did I start to shake. It had been dinner time, people driving down our quiet street not really paying much attention because they were on autopilot so close to home. She was so small, anyone could have missed her. Anyone could have hit her. Anyone could have grabbed her. ANYTHING could have happened. And it would have been my fault, because I didn’t believe her when she told me what she was doing.
My mom’s house wasn’t a gorilla enclosure. But what if it had been?
Reading through numerous stories and comment sections today about the tragic incident that took place at the Cincinnati Zoo yesterday, I’m struck by how instantly we seem to need to form an opinion on any situation that comes to our collective attention and then shout that opinion from the rooftops. “WORDS!,” we yell, as we shake our fists at the sky and each other, “WORDS! WORDS WORDS WORDS!” We type furiously, banging at the keys with anger-infused fingertips, tripping over our insults, desperate to be the first one to crucify someone we don’t even know. I’m not immune to this. Outrage feels good. Moral outrage, especially, is a convenient way to feel useful when you’re saying or doing something that’s absolutely useless.
But man, does it feel empty.
And that’s because it is empty. It serves no one and nothing except our immediate ego. It’s like eating a plate full of angry pancakes drowned in disappointment syrup with a side of judgmental eggs, over easy. It tastes delicious going down, but I’m starving like two hours later. Uninformed outrage is the simple carbs of our emotional diet. If I’m striving to keep my spirit healthy and full, I can’t shove a bunch of garbage into my heart.
Maybe that sweet boy’s mom wasn’t keeping a close eye on him. Or maybe she was, and he just pulled one of those little kid Houdini moves where he was there and then gone, before she even had a chance to process what was going on. I mean, maybe he DID tell her he was going in the water….just like my daughter told me she was going to dance class, just like she told me she was going to her Noni’s house.
What happened here is that this woman failed at being a perfect mother in public. Her mistake didn’t happen in the privacy of her own home, where she could pretend it never happened, or talk about it with her husband in a shaky voice late that night after the kids are sleeping and it really hits home when you’ve fucked up and it could’ve been so much worse than it ended up being. Her mistake happened in a way that blew up big, and it still could’ve been so much worse but it ended up pretty damn bad even still, and there are millions of people the whole world over who will never, ever let her forget that.
I just can’t bring myself to feel anything but bad for her. I’m not mad at her, I’m not mad at the zoo, I’m not mad at anybody. I’m just sad. This lady lost track of her baby for a minute or two and had a front row seat to what I’m sure she thought would be the last moments of his life. The zoo had to make an incredibly difficult decision with not a lot of time to assess all the pros and cons, and I’m certain that every one of their staff is grieving the loss of a member of their family today. I’m also certain they will be thoroughly reviewing how this happened, going over the enclosure with a fine-tooth comb, figuring out the why and the when and the “what can we do to make sure it never happens again” of it. It really is just a shitty situation any way you slice it. Sometimes awful, horrible, terrible accidents happen with awful, horrible, terrible consequences. I think we’re almost always one or two lucky breaks away from being a national news story.
And listen, that’s pretty terrifying. I get it. I really do. I mean, I get it on an intimate level after last summer’s incident. I think maybe it’s easier to point fingers and pretend things happen because A led to B which then led clearly to C, when the reality that most things happen because Y led to P ran into Z which then collided solidly into K and M means we’re all constantly walking a tightrope strung up between two disasters, and who wants to contemplate that for longer a second or two? The constant internet refrain of “That would have NEVER happened to me” is basically a big old comfort blanket we use to lull ourselves back into the security of believing we’re ever really in control of anything.
Listen, everyone is allowed to feel what they feel, obviously. I’m not here to police your feelings, to tell you that you shouldn’t be angry or disgusted or signing petitions. Only, I just keep thinking how my mom’s house wasn’t a gorilla enclosure….but it maybe could have been. We’re all only human. We all mess up sometimes, and sometimes it’s in really big, ugly, tragic ways. And I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m working really, really hard at extending grace when my first instinct is outrage, because I think that’s something we all deserve.*
*Serial killers, rapists child molesters, Hitlers, etc aside because OBVIOUSLY but see above re: internet and outrage.