On the Moral Discomfort of Daily Life

Yesterday, I was on a walk with a friend, and we came across a dog, loose at the edge of a college campus near a busy intersection and the train tracks. It seemed to like me, following me and leaping in circles around me. I patted it and turned to go. My friend, however, was worried that the dog might be a runaway. She wanted to call some authority to have the dog picked up and cared for. I was afraid of taking it away when there was nothing wrong. I was sure its owners were just over the hill, or lived down the street, and that calling some authority would make the situation worse, not better. Alone, I would have been content to let the dog find its own way home.

In the back of my mind was the way I got the cat I loved growing up. It was a similar situation. I was with a group of people who thought the cat was a runaway. I took it home, and was supposed to look for its owner. I didn’t try very hard. Looking back on it, I feel I appropriated the cat, and that it probably wasn’t lost at all. It lived with me for a good eight or nine years before dying of old age.

I tell these stories because daily life is full of these morally ambiguous situations. Do you intervene or not? What kind of intervention is appropriate and what kind of intervention is self-serving? What kind of intervention clarifies and what kind confuses? I find that encounters with animals, homeless people, and environmentalists particularly bring up this sort of moral confusion for me.

Elizabeth Creith’s “Stone the Crows,” published at Flash Fiction Online, is about a pigeon that is nearly killed by a raven. A well-dressed man plays the role my friend did with the dog. The narrator plays my role (reluctant and conflicted):

“That damn crow!” he said to me, “did you see that?”

“I did,” I said. I looked down at the bird in his hands. Its neck feathers were iridescent, pink and green and blue. Its half-plucked breast was speckled with blood, and I could see an end of bone protruding from the right leg. The eyes were black, bright and unreadable.

“What can we do? Could we take it to the humane society?”

“You could try that,” I said, “I don’t know if they take wild birds.” This bird is dead, I thought. It just hasn’t stopped breathing yet.

The story successfully gets across all the discomfort of this sort of chance encounter. I viscerally feel the urge to just get on with my day and not mess with this, tempered by the knowledge that walking away is excellent furel for a conscience that wants to feel guilty for any little privilege of modern life. I’m reading that into how the narrator feels, but that’s what I’d be feeling.

Yesterday, after my friend convinced me to call animal control, and I reluctantly agreed to wait for them to come, the dog’s owner showed up, completely casual. “She does this all the time,” the owner said. I called animal control and told them never mind. My friend was indignant that the owner could be so casual about letting the dog wondered. I listened to her, wondering why I couldn’t feel indignant that way.

I identify strongly with Creith’s narrator. If you read the story, you’ll see. I don’t want to give the ending away, but I read through a pile of flash fiction this afternoon, and this story was the only one that I felt truly nailed its ending.

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