I learned long ago that impulsive decision’s can lead to a lifetime of shame and regret.
Growing up there was a boy in my neighborhood named Billy. If you are familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird, he was our Boo Radley.
There were about 10 boys in our neighborhood and Billy was a mystery to us. He was a little older, never spoke or interacted with anyone. He did one thing – he rode his bike.
Billy lived at the end of our street and he would ride past our houses every day on his way into town. Any where you went you were likely to see Billy riding along, happy as could be. Even though he didn’t talk, he always had the same expression on his face, a serene look of peace and pure joy.
On summer nights we would all gather to play a game called ditch, which is basically hide and seek in the dark, outside. Billy was not allowed to leave the neighborhood after sunset, so he would ride his bike up and down our street. He would disappear in the dark then reappear under a street lamp every fourth or fifth house along the way. There was a light at the end of the street where we could watch him turn around and head back toward his house at the other end.
One night, we were all standing in front of my best friends house, talking and laughing as we waiting to start our next game. One of the older kids disappeared from the group then returned with a bucket. He put it down in the center of our circle and said: “Everyone pee in the bucket.”
Every single one of us, without hesitation or asking “why?’ peed in the bucket on command. We then began choosing sides for the next game. While all of this was happening, Billy had ridden past, turned around at the end of the block and was coming back toward us. Just then, the older boy picked up the bucket, I watched in slow motion, my eight year old mind finally realizing what was about to occur. The boy walked to the curb and as Billy pierced the circle of light in front of us he raised the bucket and tossed the contents at Billy.
The urine of 10 boys splashed on the side of his face, down his body and onto the pavement. We all erupted in laughter. Billy didn’t make a sound, he simply peddled away, appearing and disappearing beneath the lights as he made his way home.
Later that night, after taking my bath and being put to bed, I was struck by a bolt of sadness, shame and regret. My mind was filled with thoughts of Billy. I pictured him going into his home, soaked in urine and facing his mom. As an adult, I think more about his mother, how she must have felt and how it hurt her. Having a son with challenges, already concerned about how the world would treat him, being shown first hand by the boys in her own neighborhood.
Thinking about this breaks my heart.
A few years ago, I was visiting my mom and took a walk around my old neighborhood. As I wondered up and down its streets I saw Billy riding his bike like it was 1977. He looked older, bald and thin, but his face had the very same look of serenity. Inside I felt like that 8 year old I used to be and all of those old feelings came back to be, shame, regret and guilt. I wondered if he thought about that night, if he still hurt. For a brief moment I considered talking to him, perhaps asking his forgiveness. Just as quickly, I told myself “NO!” I didn’t want absolution. I do not seek relief from my shame. I want to remember how it felt to hurt another. I want to use that feeling when I am interacting with others – my children, my wife or my students – or anyone I encounter. I want to remember the shame that has haunted me for 40 years. The regret I feel for making an impulsive decision, simply following directions and not expressing any resistance.
I take away two lessons from this experience:
First of all, respond, don’t react. Take a breath, count to three and consider the legacy of your words and actions. Being impulsive can lead to a lifetime of shame and regret.
Secondly, if someone asks you to pee in a bucket, ask why?