It’s probably that new year, short-days/long-nights rumination mode happening, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a crossroads moment in my life. Do you ever think about those watershed experiences in your life? Defining, though perhaps outwardly humdrum, incidents that reordered your life, altered your perspective, changed your trajectory? Something that left its mark on you for a lifetime?
I have had a few such moments that I can identify off the top of my head, where suddenly the illusions were stripped away and I could not return to my previous self. My contours had changed and the old me no longer fit, falling around my feet. I’m sure most of us have had at least a few.
One clear such time was when I was a child and on a school field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I believe I was in second grade. The MSI had an incubator where museum-goers could watch chicks pecking their way out of the shell and look at the fuzzy yellow newborns peeping for their mothers, nowhere to be found. (Sadly, this barbaric exhibit still exists.)
The day my class took the field trip, I saw a chick being pecked to death by the other captive baby birds in that metal and glass enclosure. It is still so horrible to remember but remains just seared in my brain. The chick had blood on him and every time the birds around him pecked again at this mortally wounded bird, he looked newly dazed, fresh pain coursing in him. I finally looked away and tried to meet the eyes of my teacher to implore her to do something to help this bird, but she was already at the exit, summoning us to move on to the next exhibit. I looked back at the bird — bloodied, stunned, surrounded by attackers — and I realized the futility of my teacher being able to do anything. (Little did I know that all the chicks would soon be dispatched of as they have since 1954.)
I was already a sensitive kid, but I believe that witnessing that suffering and profound defenselessness that day unlocked something in me that would always be tender, always be a little sad, always be searching for ways to protect the most vulnerable. I don’t have a ton of specific memories from that time, but that day standing on the other side of the glass was one that informed the person I would…