Gimbling in the Wabe – That Which Passeth All Understanding

by Sharon Browning

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Someone was shot in the alley on my block last Sunday.  He died of those gunshot wounds on Monday morning.  He lived five doors down from me.

Gun in America Roy LichtensteinMy daughter heard the shots; we were home at the time.  She thought it was just a car backfiring, since neither I nor the dog reacted.  She calmly gave her statement to the police when they knocked on the door, wanting to help, but I could see her hands trembling, slightly.

The dead man’s name has not been released by the authorities.  I wouldn’t have known him, anyway; he lived in one of the rental houses.  An active one, always people living there, but also the one house on the block that always had trash scattered in the yard and in the street in front of it, the one where you could guarantee no one would shovel after it snowed.  If I ever encountered someone from that house when I happened to be walking by, they always averted their eyes, looked the other way, or down at the ground.  Their only acknowledgement of me was in their studied refusal to acknowledge my existence.  As if those who lived there didn’t want to be part of the world.  I found it more polite to not force them to and simply kept walking.

But he was still my neighbor.  According to the police, he was smoking out behind the house when he was shot.  They aren’t sure if it was random, such as due to an attempted robbery, or if he was shot by someone he knew.

My bet is that it was a smoldering conflict.  Robbery wouldn’t have targeted someone outside the house; this is not an affluent neighborhood by any means.  Robbery of persons is pretty much unheard of if potential marks aren’t coming out of or going into one of the businesses that flourish a block away.  Or maybe I just desperately want the shooting to have a private cause, a personal one, because then it would make at least some kind of tragic sense.  Then it would be less of a threat to me and mine, and I am not good enough of a person to pretend that this is not ultimately what is most important to me.

But I do wonder what kind of life the dead man had lived; who he leaves behind, and if they live in greater fear now or some kind of grim relief?  What callous forces simply wipe a person from existence with a slug of metal propelled through once living flesh?  What makes this an option?  Who will feel merely the ripple of the effect of those bullets, and who, if any, will instead be buffeted by a roiling wave?

I want to go to the funeral, and sit in back in a quiet show of respect – he was, after all, my neighbor.  But I doubt as if any newspaper will run his obituary.  I would not presume to walk over to the now lifeless house and ask when and where a service might be held.  If his people are still there, they would not want me intruding now, when I was not welcome before.

But still, he was my neighbor.


Yesterday, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door.  This is not uncommon.  Our inner city neighborhood seems to be ripe for conversion, from as many religious groups that canvas us on a fairly regular basis.

The woman told me her name was Hazel.  She was old; dressed in her Sunday best with dark red lipstick and deep purple polish on her nails, she was doing her best to make God’s messenger appear proud and respectable.  Her eyes were kind, but they could not look me in the eye for more than a fleeting moment; not due to lack of conviction, I think, but due to being uncomfortable talking to strangers.  I felt kindly towards her; her very discomfort gave credence to the depth of her belief.

“Do you read your Bible every day?” she asked me, but it wasn’t a challenge, so I did not get riled by the insinuation that I should, or the assumption that the Bible would be the authority of my belief.

I told her, honestly, that no, I didn’t read it as often as I probably should, but having grown up in a religious household (“…my father being a minister…” – that always gets me off the hook a bit) I was fairly knowledgeable about what it had to say.  But my answer didn’t really matter, because she was already pulling out the “Does it do any good to pray?” pamphlet, fumbling with the pages (her hands were trembling, perhaps from age, perhaps from nervousness) and moving on to her next prescripted point. (The young man who accompanied her nodded acknowledgement of my answer, at least.)

Hazel then posed the question, if I was to pray to God for something, what would it be?  I thought about this for a moment, and now her eyes did fall upon me.  In another scenario, I would have said that I had no need to pray to God for anything (and let the questioner decide if that meant that I was satisfied with my life or if I had no need for God), but even if I didn’t believe, Hazel did, and I respected that.  At least she had not asked if there was something I would like to pray to God about, for then I would have been hard pressed to give an honest reply.

So I told her, sincerely, if I was to pray to God, I would ask Him why my neighbor had to die after being gunned down in his own back yard.  Hazel thought she understood my response; she knew about the murder, too.  I immediately had her sympathy (as I was apparently some sort of tacit survivor, as neighbors often are), and her talk became impassioned, speaking about the demons that perform the work of Satan, from the snake in the Garden of Eden to those living in the hearts of men today.  I nodded, and let her run on, and took her pamphlets after she had pointed out the article on “3 Questions People Would Like to Ask God”, which had strayed far from her question or my answer.

Her companion spoke up then, with a lovely, lilting accent; his name was Jonathan.  He effortlessly reined the conversation back in, and spoke of God’s love and he spoke of hope.  He asked nothing of me, but instead gave witness in his own calm demeanor, his ability to look me in the eye and exude an encompassing love and acceptance without question or expectation.  And although I had evidenced nothing of my own of faith or belief, I could truly say to them as they turned to leave, “Yes, there is always hope.”

Not for my nameless neighbor, though.  He’s still dead.  No amount of prayer or faith will change that, not even had any been offered up for him by any of us.  Even page 5 of Hazel’s Awake! pamphlet, with the first of the three questions that supposedly people would like to ask God, “Why do you allow suffering,” merely afforded the age old dodge of “His actions may seem strange to us” and “ultimately all pain and suffering can be traced to humans’ rejecting God’s authority.”  Those thoughts may bring Hazel comfort, but not me.  I no longer look for comfort in pamphlets or platitudes or believing that I have even a passing understanding of the true nature of God.

I look for comfort in our shared humanity, as miserable or misguided or encompassing or heartfelt as it may be.  I take comfort in Hazel’s believing eyes, in the lilt in Jonathan’s voice.  In the trembling of my daughter’s hands as she gave her report to the uniformed officer that came to our door.  In the finding in myself a modicum of shame in not knowing who it was who died in the hospital on Monday morning, of gunshot wounds he received on Sunday night while smoking behind his house.

He was, after all, my neighbor.

~ Sharon Browning

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