Inside looking out: Blame the squirrels
Two squirrels frolic in the street as I approach them in my car. One scampers to safe haven on the side of the road. The other follows, but it suddenly stops, turns around and runs back. I cringe as I hear the thump. Looking into my rearview mirror, I see its lifeless body in the middle of the road.
“It’s just a stupid squirrel and it wasn’t my fault,” I tell myself. My conscience doesn’t agree. I feel terrible. Three days later I drive down the same street and I steer around what’s left of the body. This time I try to kid myself that I’m wanted by the animal police for hit-and-run death by auto. I force out a laugh but I think of the little guy’s poor buddy and now I feel stupid that I thought the whole experience was funny.
How is it that people like me feel bad about accidentally killing a squirrel while someone else can walk into a synagogue near Pittsburgh and shoot 11 dead without feeling an ounce of guilt or remorse?
“You ran over a stupid squirrel,” my friend told me. “I probably do that a half dozen times a year. Besides, you’re helping to control the population of the ugly rodents. Too many around anyway.”
“Go tell that to the dead guy’s buddy,” I said. “Tell him you’re going to run him over, too, the next time you drive down that road to help reduce the population even more.”
Psychology Today reports the average person who has a moral conscience spends five hours a week feeling guilty about something or another. The guilt comes in short bursts but then returns when the mind revisits the guilty experience. Heavy and long-lasting guilt can disturb normal functions of everyday life and prevent enjoyment of activities.
If you hurt someone’s feelings and rather than face up to what you did, you can lock out your guilt by avoiding your victim. You can also fault the one you hurt and shift the guilt away from you.
“Yeah, you stupid squirrel! You should know not to play in the street. Your buddy should know, too. It’s your fault. It’s his fault.”
Seventeenth-century preacher Robert South said, “Guilt upon the conscience, like rust upon iron, both defiles and consumes it, gnawing and creeping into it, as that does which at last eats out the very heart and substance of the metal.”
His remarks make me wonder how many convicted criminals are tortured by their wrongdoings or for that matter, how many carry no remorse.
Psychiatrists say that someone who has no remorse for doing wrong has anti-personality disorder. Writer J. Budziszewski cites an example about a 15-year-old boy whose friend was supposed to drive him to a party. The friend didn’t show up, so the boy got a gun and held up a woman coming out of a store. He took her keys and stole her car. The police tracked him down and arrested him.
When asked why he held a woman at gunpoint and stole her car, he replied, “How else was I going to get to the party?”
I suppose when someone brings unspeakable harm to innocent people he is consumed by a motive that forces out any chance for guilt or remorse. Ironically then, the intent to harm might not bother the conscience like an accident would that hurts someone because there was no intent making it an excusable error.
“See that, you squirrels! No more guilt from me.”
Yet I still felt bad.
“Are you kidding?” said my friend. “You didn’t run over a kid.”
Just to keep the argument going, I said, “How do you know that little guy’s mom and dad weren’t watching me kill their son?”
“When you fish and use a baby perch for bait and it gets eaten by a big bass, do you feel bad?”
“My daughter won’t go fishing with me anymore. She says it’s cruel to jab a hook into a baby fish and then let it get eaten.”
“Good thing you’re not a hunter,” said my friend. “You’d be crying over the first animal you shot and killed.”
“I’d never pull the trigger.”
My friend taps his fingers on his cellphone, “Forty one million squirrels are roadkill in the U.S. each year.”
“That’s terrible,” I said. He taps his phone again.
“Here’s something you can really grieve about. Over 1 trillion insects get run over every year.”
“Oh my God!”
“You gonna cry about that, too?”
“Somebody actually counts the dead bugs on the roads?”
He rolls his eyes.
“Get a bicycle. You might squash a caterpillar, but the squirrels should be safe.”
So I drive on looking at the roadside for that next gray tail that wants to play Russian roulette with my front tires. Then I think of how many squirrels cheat death on the blacktop everyday to live another day and I laugh to myself.
Don’t we all.
Rich Strack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.