April 12, 2012

Lessons To Be Learned

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I’ve done a lot of dumb things in my life. Probably one of the dumbest was the time I strolled through Hezbollah territory in Beirut, just to see what it was like. It was a definitely a dangerous mistake to go there, since Hezbollah frequently kidnaps foreigners. But I’d probably go back again, because it was a fascinating place — and, since I escaped untouched, I didn’t learn my lesson.

We all do dumb things — for fun, thrills, on impulse or out of desperation. What’s hard to understand is why we do the same dumb things over and over, even though we know they’re risky. Often we don’t learn our lesson until we suffer the consequences.

I remember a time that I almost lost my hand in a gunpowder explosion. When I was maybe 12 or so, I loved fireworks and played with any I could get my hands on. One year, my family went to Disneyworld and we watched a fireworks display that was launched from a barge on a little inlet. The next day, walking on the beach, I found little canisters that had washed up from the display. Some had remnants of gunpowder in them, so I pocketed them without my parents’ knowledge.

Back at home, I emptied the canisters onto a piece of newspaper and let the gunpowder dry out. Later, trying to ignite it, I thrust a lighter into the middle of the pile — and within two seconds was thrown backward by a three-foot diameter fireball. I didn’t realize what had happened to my hand until I looked down at it. The explosion had blown the skin and nails off three of my fingers. Without my father’s prompt medical attention, I would probably be skillfully typing this story with a pinky, ring-finger and stumps.

I never played with fireworks again. To this day they still frighten me. It took that horrifying moment, and that gruesome injury, for me to develop a healthy fear of explosives. The dozens of risks I had taken before that incident, in which I didn’t get hurt, taught me nothing. It was only from fear and pain that I finally learned.

So we all do dumb things, but at least sometimes we learn something from the experience. The real tragedy is when it is too late to learn, when the damage is permanent, when someone dies from his mistake. In those horrible cases, we as friends, relatives and bystanders cannot see any silver lining in the episode. The “lesson” came too late; it wasn’t fair. We don’t even want to admit that there was a lesson, since then we are blaming the victim. We are saying he made a mistake — and what does that accomplish? He’s dead anyway.

And because our loved one is not around to learn his lesson, we play the “blame game,” to find comfort somehow, to rationalize the irrational. It’s not compassionate to place responsibility upon one who cannot admit his error, so we look elsewhere for a lesson from the tragedy. We blame the environment in which the tragedy occurred.

Two recent cases at Cornell, involving the deaths of students, illustrate this phenomenon. In one case, the mother of a student who died of alcohol poisoning is suing his fraternity’s national organization for failing to prevent the chapter members from engaging in dangerous activities. In another, the father of a Cornell freshman who jumped from a bridge to his death is suing the University for failing to prevent his son’s suicide.

It’s all so terribly sad. Sad for the students, whose lives were cut off during their prime, and sad for the parents, who are left only with photographs where a human being once was. So whose fault is it? Whose fault is a suicide? A death by alcohol poisoning?

Whose fault was my accident with the fireworks? Well, it wasn’t the gunpowder’s fault, that’s for sure. Maybe it was my parents’ fault, for not stopping me from getting the gunpowder. But they didn’t know I snatched it off the beach and they couldn’t search my room constantly.

Maybe it was Disney’s fault, that some of the fireworks malfunctioned and left gunpowder residue. Better yet, maybe it was the government’s fault, for not passing a law to prevent companies like Disney from allowing fireworks to malfunction.

But the truth is that I got burned because I played with fire. Thank God my injury was not worse — but if it had been, the blame would still be mine. To be sure, people do not live in a vacuum — we are all somewhat products of our surroundings and culture — but culture does not coercion make.

One could argue — and many have, in the cases described above — that a community has certain obligations to its members. The University has a responsibility to protect its students from hazing. It also has a responsibility to provide a caring environment, one in which troubled students can find support, before they make a terrible decision like suicide.  But how far can the University go to protect us from ourselves? We must not forget the other responsibility — the sadly, all-too-often forgotten one — ours.

It’s tough to be wrong, and it feels crass to blame a victim. But if we take blame out of the hands of individuals and relegate it to an environment — to “missing regulations,” to a University’s lack of bridge barriers, to “fraternity culture” — then we deny free will. Because in the end, we are all parts of a larger environment, and if you can use that environment to absolve a mistake, then you can use it to absolve a crime. And in that world, that dangerous territory, there are no “lessons to be learned,” not even for those who survive to learn them.

Jonathan Panter is a senior in the College of Arts  and Sciences. He may be reached at jpanter@cornellsun.com. The Storyteller appears alternate Fridays this semester.

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Original Author: Jonathan Panter