“A man who carries a cat by the tale learns something he can learn in no other way.” -Mark Twain
My father once told me a story about an experience he had with a rifle as a young boy. The story wasn’t an exciting adventure with chases of wild animals or skilled shooting but rather a cautionary tale about the limitations of our own thinking that can only be remedied by experience. And more specifically, how terrifying the process of gathering experience can be.
The story goes something like this: my father was young and had a rifle for shooting squirrels and such. One day he took a walk out on to a frozen lake and decided to shoot the ice. So, he stopped, and placed the rifle barrel straight down between his feet and pulled the trigger.
By his own words, it wasn’t until after he pulled the trigger did it occur to him how incredibly dangerous it was to shoot ice you are standing on. The ice could have broken, causing him to drown or freeze to death. The bullet could have ricocheted up and hit him. He could have shot himself in the foot. Or any combination of these events could have occurred. By all reason, one of those terrible circumstances should have occurred. But it didn’t. My father went home and lived to tell the tale.
Seventy plus years after my father shot the ice he was standing on, the story lives on and I have been able to glean from his experience. I have never owned a rifle, nor am I a fan of walking on frozen lakes, but one thing I can say for certain is that should I find myself on a frozen lake, with a rifle, I will not shoot the ice I am standing on. Not because I am smart, or inherently know not to do so, but because my father’s story now lives within me. His experience has become my experience.
What if my father was too embarrassed to tell anyone about his flawed logic in shooting the ice? Knowing what I know, it is almost impossible to think that I would have done the same as him if I found myself in a similar situation. But that’s the kicker, I don’t know what I don’t know. And did I mention he was a child? Age should be irrelevant because maturity is a spectrum but defining someone as young as opposed to a child makes a difference in perception.
And what is experience? Is it not just an adjustment in perception? If this is true, one need only to learn of someone’s experience to benefit from it. Of course, it helps if they live to tell the tale. Not only would I have never been conceived had my father’s shot in the ice turned out differently, the how and why of it would have been lost to the ages.
Our own personal experience is our most prized possession. It is uniquely our own and free to give to others. There is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to experience, only whether we live to talk about it or not. However, while hearing other’s experience can be helpful, even lifesaving, it can only truly be colored by the person who lived it.
What if my father had told me that it is fine to shoot ice? He shot it when he was a kid and lived, therefore, it is fine to shoot ice. I may have believed him and applied flawed logic to physics, guns safety, and even ice safety. I still might not have duplicated his actions if given the chance, but who knows? We don’t know what we don’t know. I might have had to have had my own experience of shooting the ice before I truly believed it was a bad idea.
We can substitute any one of the variables in my father’s story and a darker picture will form. Instead of gun shots it was whisky shots. Instead of young it was old. It was a person instead of ice. Life can turn quickly from passive to aggressive.
Thankfully, my father’s story was truly only about shooting ice. The humanity of his story is that it is something we could easily imagine a child doing, based on the experience of being adults who were once children.
My reflections of my father’s story remind me of the importance of sharing our experiences with others and that we don’t get to decide which story helps who and when. I doubt my father in telling me this story all those years ago thought I would reflect upon it as many times as I have all these years later.
If I truly want to be as helpful as I can be to my fellows, it is my duty to share my personal experiences. Even when they are uncomfortable and especially when they are comparable to shooting ice.
Today, I will treat the experience of others as a gift. I will remain grateful that I am able to avoid many pitfalls because of those who have gone before me. Likewise, I will do my best to be transparent with my own experiences and share them freely and without expectation.