Discover more from The Rewilded Life
the carnage of my wrongdoing
lessons on compassionate witness
I ran over a groundhog this week. I knew it would happen the moment I saw him, calculated in a millisecond that there was no scenario in which his path and mine would not collide as he ran across the street and I drove a minivan full of children. Perhaps someone with quicker reflexes and better driving skills could have missed him? We’ll never know. I started mourning him the moment I saw him.
Once, in college, I drove directly behind a car that hit a cat; a front row seat to watching a living thing meet her end. I still remember how high she flew into the air; still remember sobbing in shock the whole way home.
But this wasn’t that. There was no dramatic thing to witness here, just a fear, a knowing, a bump. Done. What right did I have to motor a death engine around his prairie? The question was too obvious to ignore. These tall grasses made both our homes, but I’m the only one of us who threatened the other.
From the backseat, one of my older sons, in his struggle to process the sadness, yelled out a critique of my driving. I yelled back at him out of my own grief (we humans are so predictable), the tone of my voice shocking my children into silence. The minivan is never silent. But this time it was. This time it was silent the whole way home, the carnage of all of my wrongdoing loud in its stead.
Once inside and when I’d finished crying, I gathered my babies up onto the couch and repented to the one I’d hurt. We talked about sadness and grief and all our big, big feelings for the groundhog, whose blood, it felt, was on all our hands. One described his heart: broken into a million pieces. Tears in my eyes, I agreed: mine too. When we hugged he said, “that’s one piece back together.”
He is five. I don’t have much longer until my hugs are not enough to put the broken pieces back together; don’t have much longer until the things he grieves are bigger than dead groundhogs. I know this. I hug him intemperately.
One thing about me: I bury the dead. My children know this. We have spent countless hours in burials over the years of their lives: pet fish, a baby bird, mice, a frog, even a raccoon once. Every life deserves to be loved in death, I teach them.
For a few hours, I weighed the prospect of returning to the groundhog with a trashbag and a shovel. I imagined nudging him in, bagging him up, taking him home to the woods behind our house with whoever wanted to come along. But then came the reality of what I would find if I did return, the guts and brains and dear God what else, and I shuddered. It’s one thing to bury the dead. It’s another thing to bury one dead by your own hand. My heart couldn’t withstand it.
What do we owe each other?
What does it mean to do no harm — or, at least, to do as little harm as possible? Where is the greater damage, killing the groundhog or wounding the son I yelled at? Which is my sin — or is it both? Is it neither? Does it matter?
Maybe the point is not to renounce motorized vehicles or swear not to raise my voice at my kids (neither of which are realistic long-term anyway). Could it be enough to just be present, really be present, to all of it?
I once heard this about trauma: trauma is not as much about what actually happened to us as it is about the lack of a compassionate witness.
To be a compassionate witness requires no specialized skills, no highly enlightened state. To be a compassionate witness is to pay attention. I can’t do much, but I can do that. I can be a compassionate witness to the death of the groundhog. I can be a compassionate witness to the grief of my children. I can be a compassionate witness to the one I hurt.
I can be a compassionate witness to my own culpability without turning away. I can be a compassionate witness for myself. Can you?
psst… big ebook sale
For the month of June, the ebook version of Rewilding Motherhood: Your Path to an Empowered Feminine Spirituality is on sale for just $3.99. If you’re an ebook reader, this is your moment.
I hope the beginning of summer is as welcome for you as it is for me. My big plans for today (after attending an epic soccer game, obvi) include iced tea, sunbathing in the grass, and a good novel. This is MY SEASON, y’all. I take my summer leisure very seriously.
Wishing you lots of sunshine and margaritas,