|We Are The Gator
February 22, 2017
Read a fascinating article today from, of all places, Buzzfeed.com: "Fuck That Gator," a story about a man who died after jumping in a gator-infested pond (the title being the last words he ever uttered) and the aftermath, ranging from citizens hunting down the alligator to the anger of a family that spends more time defending their son's reputation than grieving his passing.
The story really is a fine piece of writing that covers the story from multiple angles. At the center of it is the family's grief, anger and frustration in the days following the death when social media trolls couldn't help but reference Darwin awards, joy at one less redneck in the world, and defense of alligators everywhere.
I pride myself on being an empathetic person, but even after reading the story, I can't help but align myself with the trolls. There is a testament to human arrogance throughout the entire story, starting with the final words: "Fuck That Gator." On top of that, we have his brother's pride in recounting their eating of a stray cat that they skinned and cooked. Or how he and his brother couldn't be outworked by anybody. Or the local construction worker who decided to hunt down the offending gator: "that gator had to go. He killed a man." What kind of arrogance does it take to believe “When I looked right in his [the alligator's] eyes and he looked in my eyes, a chill come over me . . . His eyes were a mixture of tired and evil and all kinds of shit. I knew it was him. I had no doubt. I’m not one to go out and take the lord’s creatures, but I had no regrets or remorse at all in taking his life right there in that moment.” As the story points out, the main reason he was never charged with a crime was that the gator's stomach revealed human contents, meaning that he got lucky in killing the offending gator.
I can't work up much empathy for these people. And it bothers me. First off, I have relatives who I am sure have had their own "fuck that gator" moments (you guys know who you are, no reason for me to call you out). I know even in my own immediate family, the line between smart and stupid is a thin one. I've learned of my son riding on the trunk of his buddy's car as he goes down the street. Hell, I once ran through a train crossing perfectly sober and aware and still at risk of being crushed by the train just a few yards away.
This recognition of human nature is what the wall trilogy of poems that have formed the February 2017 blogs have been about. We all have been the death-defier; just as importantly, we have all been the gator. Not wanting to offend the creationists, but I believe we are all just minutes removed (given the cosmic timeline of the world) from the animals. When weak, or scared, or ignorant, or backed against the wall, human nature is as un-refined as the fiercest beasts in our kingdom. We show our gator in small doses--when our rivals lose a big football game, when someone who has hurt us meets karma face to face, when someone so different from us suffers a hardship. It's one of the reasons diversity is an important topic in education and beyond; it helps ultimately to show that we all are the same, even if the same gator.
The problem is that social media feeds our gator bellies way too easily.
For instance, back in 1971, Marvin Schrader was gored and killed when he tried to get too close to the bison in Yellowstone National Park, despite the warning pamphlets in his family's hand at the time of his death. Luckily in the good old days (boy, when the year I was 9 can be referred to as the good old days, you know you are old), the family could have a proper burial before the news got out much beyond the man's community. (You can read about Schrader's incident, the old fashioned way, by buying this book.)
The world is in my home every night. I am as addicted to online news and posts and blogs and memes as anyone else. It means that "Fuck That Gator" could be a phrase I know faster than the rescuers could find the man's body. This should make me more empathetic. But is doesn't. It makes it easier for me to mock and mimic these Texas rednecks, not putting any flesh and blood to their faces with dangling cigarette, no hair and tissue beneath their stereotypical cowboy hats.
I am only more empathetic when I can meet the person beneath the surface. As I watch the very public displays of political and social in-fighting between friends on FB, I fall back on "but, that is so-and-so and I know he is a great teacher of students or know that she is a great parent and community member." The second, however, those FB battles bring in people I don't know, I retreat to the same distance I have with gator boy and his family.
In case you haven't noticed, I have tried very hard not to name the family at the center of the "Fuck That Gator" story. That has been deliberate. I am horrified at my feelings, but they are the horror I present to you. Sometimes I am the gator. And until I acknowledge that, I am in no position to judge.