It’s one of the ghastliest, most gut-wrenching and devastating news stories I’ve ever heard in my life. A two-year-old boy at a Disney resort lake was grabbed by an alligator and dragged into the water. His father, standing right beside him when the attack occurred, tried to wrestle the child free but was no match for the eight-foot beast. They recovered the boy’s body on Wednesday.
As a parent of kids right around that age, it’s impossible to refrain from picturing myself in that situation. But it’s too awful to even imagine. It’s worse than my worst parenting nightmare. All I can do – all any of us can do – is pray for the poor mother and father who will have to live the rest of their lives somehow coping with the gaping hole left by their child’s death, and the unspeakable horror of the incident forever branded on their souls.
There is nothing more to be said. But, unfortunately, that never stops people from saying more.
This morning, before the press conference announcing that there is “no question” the boy was killed, I kept checking social media for updates on the story, clinging to the impossible hope that maybe he’d be discovered alive somehow. I found the updates I wanted, but I also found other predictable things I didn’t want. A number of people apparently thought the grizzly death of a child was a prime opportunity to fish for retweets by making topical jokes about the situation. I’ll spare you examples because I don’t think they are necessary.
Nobody is shocked by any level of inhumanity displayed online – especially on Twitter – but we shouldn’t become so numb to it that we take it for granted. There’s a temptation to sort of roll our eyes at the most monstrous behavior in cyberspace and say, “Well, that’s the internet for you.” But it’s not the internet. These are human beings; actual people whose immediate response to an alligator devouring a child is to publicly say something mocking or sarcastic about it.
The fact that they choose the internet as a medium is morally irrelevant. It’s not like the internet is some separate and distinct world set off to the side. It is just a communication mechanism for this world. A great many people choose to use it to communicate the most vile and despicable things, because they are, deep in their souls, vile and despicable people.
There is no such thing as a decent man who acts like a subhuman psychopath on Twitter. If he acts like a subhuman psycopath on Twitter, he is not a decent man anywhere. And this means – considering the overwhelming preponderance of people acting like subhuman psychopaths on Twitter – that we are living in a society dangerously bereft of decent humans.
I don’t know what we can do about that, but I suppose the first thing we should do is admit it.
But another common reaction to this story was the same reaction many people had to the boy who fell into the gorilla exhibit a few weeks ago. It’s the same reaction we often see when a young child is maimed or killed or injured in some dramatic fashion. On the internet and off of it, we have conditioned ourselves to immediately shout the familiar slogan: “BAD PARENTING!”
This morning, as news broke about the alligator attack, the peanut gallery rushed to the scene shouting that the parents of this boy are “stupid” “assh****” who were too “dumb” to know that they shouldn’t leave their kids “unattended.” Parents “need to be more aware,” it was helpfully offered. They should not have allowed their kid near a lake in gator country, it was said. This is their fault, the critics yelled. These are some of the more friendly suggestions. And, from what I could see, many of the critics appeared to be at an age where they probably didn’t have any kids of their own.
Never mind the blatant idiocy of these comments given the particulars of this case. The parents were with their child at a man-made resort lake with sand and a beach and chairs and other things surrounding the body of water; all seemingly inviting a family to come and relax along side it. Apparently there were signs warning patrons not to swim, but the young boy was not swimming. He was wading in the shallows, under the careful supervision of both parents.
Residents of Florida know to be wary of any lake or pond, especially at dusk. On the other hand, tourists from outside the state are not conditioned with the same distrust. If these parents are “stupid” for letting their kid near a sandy, beautiful, man-made lake in a resort park, then I am as much an idiot as them. I’ve never taken my family to Florida, but if I did, prior to this tragedy, I surely would have let my young ones wade in that lake, too.
And if we’d happened to have planned a trip to a lake in Florida this summer, rather than a lake in Pennsylvania – which is where we vacationed last week – that could have been my son. It could have been me rushing frantically into the water to try and rescue my little boy from the clutches of a prehistoric reptile. It could have been me screaming in agony as I realize that it was hopeless and my boy would surely die.
It is not my parenting talent that has spared my son that fate. It is merely circumstance. And you never know when circumstances will turn against you. That’s the thought, more than any other, that keeps a parent up at night.
This is why we can’t rush to condemn parents when some terrible accident befalls a child. Well, it’s one reason. The first reason is that basic human decency I referenced earlier, which, as we’ve established, is severely lacking in our culture. But anyone who retains even a shred of it should realize that the loss of a child is already, quite literally, the worst thing that can happen to a human being. To compound that with criticism is not only cruel but redundant.
Most parents would not hesitate to give up their lives or undergo any physical trauma for the sake of protecting their children. That father in Florida did not hesitate to rush into the water and tussle with a giant alligator. If he’d been successful, perhaps the alligator would have attacked him next. And I have no doubt he would have preferred to suffer that painful and agonizing death instead of his son. If he could go back and stand in his son’s place, he would. That is what it means to love a child. What possible purpose does your criticism serve? He would give up his life to have his child back. Do you think he needs you to inform him that it would have been best if this whole situation were avoided?
Does any parent need that? I remember reading a story a while ago about a father who accidentally backed over his son in the driveway and killed him. I remember arguing with people who insisted that the dad should go to jail as punishment. These were, as you would expect, non-parents. They do not understand the love a parent has for a child, so they cannot possibly even begin to comprehend the devastation a parent feels in losing a child. Punished? He buried his son. He has already been given a sentence more severe than death. And you want to add another one on top of it? Why? For what purpose? To what end? That’s like giving a death row inmate 100 lashes after you’ve already given him a lethal injection.
Parents whose children suffer these misfortunes do not need our punishment, and they do not need our instructions and reminders and admonitions. Our urge to deliver these things says something about us. I’d like to believe it’s rooted in a misdirected desire for justice, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think people simply like to feel superior. And when they find a mother and father weeping over the grave of a child, they think it the perfect opportunity to remind the world that they are far more competent and intelligent than these silly, reckless parents.
It is truly depraved.
And, anyway, it’s not true. They think they are more competent, but that’s usually because they have no children. There are things in this world that you can come to understand without seeing or experiencing them firsthand, but parenting is not one of them. I have never been to Paris, for instance, but if I studied it long enough I could get a pretty good idea of it. And if I had a map of the city, I could even tell you how to get from Point A to Point B, despite having never walked the streets or driven the roads. But there are other things you cannot understand without having experienced them. I’m told that war is one example of this. I know from experience that parenting is another.
You can watch children, observe parents, read parenting books, and listen to parents talk about their trials and tribulations, but you cannot understand what any of it means, on a practical or spiritual or emotional level, until you’ve done it. I don’t care if you babysit your niece sometimes or if you have younger siblings or whatever else. Until you have been entrusted with caring for another human being’s body and soul every second of the day for 18 or more years, you cannot possibly comprehend what it entails. You swear that you’ll never make a mistake, or look away, or have a lapse of judgment, but until you’ve had to put that oath into practice, you’ll never understand how incredibly stupid you really sound.
The world is overflowing – practically bursting at the seams – with things that can hurt or kill a child. On a spiritual level, it’s filled with forces that can do even worse than that. And until you’ve had kids, you don’t understand what it means to live with that burden and responsibility. You also don’t understand how truly impossible it is to insulate your offspring from all of these threats, or how an unanticipated threaten can present itself suddenly and virtually out of thin air. Your kid is always one second away from disaster – only a breath away from catastrophe – and you don’t understand that until you’ve lived it.
A little while ago, I was in the living room with the twins watching some irritating children’s show. Something happened with the cable, so I turned my back to the kids to fiddle with the cable box. In that time — maybe 30 seconds or less — my son climbed up onto the coffee table and managed to fall off of it in a cartwheel-like motion. He landed square on the top of his head. He screamed for a few minutes and then got over it. But he could have broken his neck. He could have died right there. If he’d landed just a little differently, with his body in just a slightly different position, maybe it would have put enough pressure on his neck to snap it and kill him. It’s possible. He doesn’t know it, but he probably escaped death or paralyzing injury by a matter of degrees.
And what would the story have been, had things gone the other way? “A child breaks his neck falling off of a table because his father was too busy trying to fix the cable box.” I would have been the dumb parent. The stupid parent. The awful parent. The “assh*le” parent. The parent who doesn’t know how to parent. The parent who should probably be arrested for negligence. The parent who needs to be lectured by a bunch of non-parents who don’t understand that you can’t be holding your kid’s hand and staring directly at him every second of the day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 18 years. There are moments where you look away, where you’re not right there, where you misjudge something, you miscalculate, you make a mistake. And tragedy can always visit you in those moments. If it doesn’t, it’s because you’re lucky. If it does, it’s because you’re not.
For parents who are not lucky, all they deserve is prayer and compassion. If you give them anything else, it reveals your own profound ignorance. Or maybe it reveals something even worse.
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