I was just walking my dog on a peaceful Sunday afternoon.
From beyond a grassy knoll of lavender and roses, someone beckoned me from a second floor apartment balcony. I looked up to see a shirtless man leaning against the rail. He was too far away for me to make out his features, but I could tell he was young, blond, and—from his unsteady swagger—drunk.
“What kinda dog is that?” he yowled. A greyhound, I responded, continuing to walk.
“I’ll bet he can kick some ass,” he bellowed, taking a swig of something I safely presumed to be beer. “I’ll bet he can kick some major aaaaassss” he repeated.
“Naw, he’s friendly.” Still not breaking pace, I quipped, “He’s a lover, not a fighter.”
“Yeah,” the young man hollered, “and you’re ugly!” Then he whooped it up, laughing hysterically. His cackle echoed down the street as I walked away, stunned at the unprovoked attack. And when I arrived home, I cried.
Ugly, my ass
But it wasn’t the insult that hurt. I had realized he was too far away to even make out my features let alone pass judgment. No, I cried for the naked cruelty of the gesture.
Yet at the very same time, it reminded me of the one time in my life I have ever been intentionally mean.
I was seven years old and in the second grade. My classmate’s name was Donna, and for some reason I didn’t like her. She was shy and kept to herself, probably because she didn’t dress as nicely as the other kids and often had messy hair and a dirty face. I realize now that this little girl was probably underprivileged, possibly neglected, and quite possibly abused. But a seven-year-old doesn’t know or care about such issues and takes things at face value. Which is why I had no qualms about christening our classmate Dirty Donna.
Quickly the nickname spread. As she walked through the playground with her head hung low, I could hear other kids taunting, “Dirty Donna, Dirty Donna!” I did too, thinking this was really her fault. After all, if she didn’t want to be known as Dirty Donna, then why couldn’t she take a bath? Comb her hair? Change her clothes? She was asking for it!
Then one day while walking home from school I saw Dirty Donna sitting by herself, wearing her familiar dirty dress, with her arms wrapped around her knees tucked under her chin. And she looked terribly, terribly alone.
And in that instance, even though I had no comprehension of the word or its meaning, I felt the blinding flash of conscience. I smiled at Donna, said hello. The next day at school I made a point of addressing her only as Donna. At the tender age of seven years, my pre-adolescent brain had recognized how badly I had behaved.
Lacking a moral compass
The guy on the balcony, however, wasn’t a seven-year-old child. Adults fully comprehending (and enjoying) the impact of their hurtful words also behave cruelly…on serene spring days, with flowers in full bloom, like the day I set off with my greyhound trotting happily beside me.
After all, soldiers in U.S. military police units in Iraq sexually humiliated Iraqi prisoners, seemingly just because they could. Incredibly, there are people who take pleasure in the pain of others.
And that is why I cried when I got home.