It was 1961 when I first killed something. I was four years old.
It was an experience I remember well – not so much for the taking of a life as much as it was my first failure to possess a living thing.
My idea to capture another living thing came to me inside the campus duplex of an Arkansas Baptist campus. The few corners in our home were usually quite busy. While my father used a small desk in the living room studying ministerial texts, my mother was often occupied in the kitchen supplementing our food supply with the canning of vegetables.
Late one afternoon, I entered the kitchen to find my mother conspicuously absent from her canning activities. On the counter, in preparation for tomorrow’s canning, sat dozens of overturned Mason jars, sterilized and drying atop a soaking dishcloth.
With my mother asleep in the living room, her feet suspended by a refurbished ottoman, I made a quick decision. I reached up onto the counter and grabbed the quart-size jar of my choosing. Along with it, I took a shiny tin lid, my fingers tracing the cursive raised letters of Kerr. Then, in a flash, I ran out the kitchen door to the back corner of our duplex, skidding on my knees in the red Arkansas clay.
For there, only three feet from the foundation, was a hole I had recently dug about the size of a mixing bowl. And around that hole, an entire macrocosm of southern critters were dining on the crumbs from my lunchtime sandwich. Now fluttering inches above my kingdom and struggling to stay aloft in the humid air was the most intricately speckled butterfly.
I don’t know how old you have to be before you realize that the living creatures around you don’t assemble exclusively for your benefit, but I’m sure that I had not yet reached that age, for this butterfly seemed to belong to me.
Certain this butterfly yearned to live with me, I opened the jar, and with preschool coordination, I swung at the blur of flutter. I missed. But, undeterred, I tried a few more times and on my last try, I halfway succeeded.
I say, “halfway,” because the lip of the jar came down squarely on the butterfly’s torso. Now, with one wing in the jar, and the other wing fluttering helplessly in freedom, the life of this creature quickly faded.
The whole effort had begun in the innocence of childhood, but as my lips quivered under my sniffling nose, I was becoming aware that if I hadn’t tried to own the butterfly, it would still be dancing in delight of the shelter I’d dug. This awareness of my own possessiveness and it’s complicity in ending this life is one of my earliest childhood recollections.
The fear of losing what we most desire is a powerfully motivating emotion that sometimes leads us to discard the welfare of the thing we most want. As I swung that heavy jar at such a delicate creature, my first concern was that I was losing something very precious.
We spend much of our time in relationships trying to own what we cannot possess. Perhaps unintentionally. But we are still using the glass jars in much the same way we used them as children — to capture beauty.
There are all kinds of beautiful glass jars in the world. And while we often use them with the best of intentions, tragically, the results are often the same, we lose what we most desire.
Christian scripture teaches that the only way to really gain yourself is to lose yourself. “If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me (God), you’ll find both yourself and me (God.)”*
And perhaps in finding yourself, you’ve captured the most beautiful picture of God’s intention there is to possess.
*The Message © by Eugene H. Peterson 2002