Derek Penwell was nine years old when friend of his was badly burned. And it caused him to think about how we witness one another’s pain.
I had a baseball game that day, beginning and ending my career as a catcher for Dog ‘n Suds at the tender age of nine. I was nearsighted and my glasses didn’t fit beneath the mask. Every time I turned my head, the mask moved slightly, as did my black nerd glasses, which made every pitch a funhouse adventure.
After I got home, following yet another losing game, and parked my orange Huffy with the black and orange striped banana seat, my mom met me outside and said, “There’s been an accident.”
Not knowing quite what to say, I said, “Who?”
“Jamie,” she said. “He and Michael were playing with lighter fluid out in the woods, and Jamie was burned badly.”
I remember wondering how it might be possible to be burned “goodly.” But all I said was, “What happened?”
“I don’t know, honey. His mom just called. I think he’d like to see you.”
Jamie was a fairly good, if suggestible kid, who lived across the street from me. We were the same age, but we were in different third grade classes, and didn’t hang out much together at school. At home, though, we roamed the neighborhood, built ramps to jump our bikes, played sandlot baseball and kick the can, and traded baseball cards.
Michael, who was a year older than we were, lived two doors down from me. And though my parents never said so explicitly, I got the impression that they thought Michael was a “bad kid.” He always seemed to be in trouble, picking fights and swearing at adults. Last I heard he was serving time for attempted murder.
On the way over to see Jamie, I kept thinking about the bodily implications of being burned. I’d played with matches myself before, so I knew that fire hurt in an intense and special way. And the thought of someone close to me experiencing such pain not on a tip-of-the-finger scale, but on a life-altering scale seemed incomprehensible to me.
When I saw him, his leg was bandaged all the way up to his hip. He was whimpering. I didn’t know what to say. Nothing seemed right. But his look said that he wanted something from me, some word, some bit of human contact from someone who didn’t yet shave and who still wasn’t allowed to swear in public. So, I said all I could think to say: “I’m sorry, Jamie.”
Now, this wasn’t a movie, so my three words didn’t “buoy his flagging spirits,” they didn’t “give him the strength to go on” and “face an uncertain future.” He said, “Thanks.” And that was probably it for him.
But I got to thinking about those three words: “I’m sorry, Jamie.” What does that even mean for a nine year-old to say “I’m sorry” in the face of tragedy? Of course, I know what it means if you’re nine and you throw a rock through the neighbor’s picture window. Then, “I’m sorry” means, “I take responsibility. I shouldn’t have done that. I didn’t meant to hurt you.”
What does it mean, though, when your nine year-old neighbor damn near burns his leg off, and you (another nine year-old) say, “I’m sorry?”
Well, for one thing, it could simply mean, “I’m sorry you’re hurting. I wish you weren’t.”
It could mean, “I’m sorry I have to stand here in front of you and your parents, witnessing pain that I can’t even begin to imagine, much less relieve.”
It could simply mean, “I’m sorry I don’t know what else to say, and this awkward silence is making me uncomfortable.”
I’m not sure what it meant for me to say to my pitiful nine year-old neighbor, “I’m sorry, Jamie.” I suspect my intentions were some uncomfortable mélange of all of those things. Given the same situation, and after forty years of growing up, I’m not sure I’d say anything different if I had it to do over again.
What does it mean, then, for anyone, in the face of great suffering, to say “I’m sorry?”
I suppose it might mean all those things:
- I’m sorry you’re hurting. I wish you weren’t.
- I’m sorry I have to stand here in front of you, witnessing pain that I can’t even begin to imagine, much less relieve.
- I’m sorry I don’t know what else to say, and this awkward silence is making me uncomfortable.
But it occurs to me after accumulating a little experience that such an expression of sorrow speaks to something more, something much deeper than just the current situation of which I’m now a witness. As a man now, it seems to me that “I’m sorry” goes to the very heart of what it means to be human in a world threatening to come undone.
- I think such sorrow conveys the pointed sense we seem to share that something is not right.
- Perhaps it suggests sorrow for a world in which the pain I observe is a pain I’m all too often powerless to relieve.
- Or perhaps it is a prayer to God, a shaking of the fist against the predations of the night, a seeking of answers with Job about why it is that little boys who make dumb little-boy-decisions are required to pay the debt they incur with their own pound of flesh, a chance to ask why it is we shouldn’t expect something better from the one who made us and who, in other ways, seems to love us and desire so much better for us.
I won’t pretend I know what lies at the heart of the inarticulateness that seems to plague us all when we stand in the presence of suffering. My hope is that the great dis-ease our mumbled words express lodges itself in the heart of God, whom, beneath it all, I think we’re really seeking in such times.
What I do know, though, is that “I’m sorry, Jamie” means very much the same thing, whether it comes from the mouth of a child with infield dirt still on his hands or from the mouth of a man who’s already seen more pain in the world than he thought either necessary or possible.
photo: herval / flickr