There has been some remarkably graceful commentary for the mother of the boy who fell into the gorilla pit. We are telling stories about losing our kids in the grocery store or about that time they unbuckled their own car seats. But I want us to go a little deeper than that. We should not see articles criticizing this woman and think, “There but for the Grace of God go I.” We should see her image and think, “Hey! Look! There I am!”
Because our kids are always falling into gorilla pits. There may not be a camera present. People may not be internet shaming you. But every single day mothers (and fathers) make terrible parenting decisions that have the potential for dire consequences. Did you text your friend back with your kids in the car? Car accident. Have you ever panicked about the dosage on Children’s Tylenol? Liver failure. Have you ever said the F, D, or (my personal favorite) S word in front of your little one? Your kid is prison-ready. If you have never helplessly watched your child narrowly escape imminent death, then you must not have had children.
Life is full of gorilla pit failures. But we live in a culture that is only interested in talking about failure if there is a perceived victory to absolve the mistake. We long to control and to rise up from our lives, but there is no victory here. A boy was almost killed and his parents will be wounded forever. There is no “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” that will fix their hearts after such a terrifying moment. Certainly the newsfeed backlash must make the entire experience so much worse. Sometimes terrible things happen, and there are no mechanisms for blame that will make anyone feel better.
As I write this piece I have come out of a three-week period in my life that has contained a massive car accident, a beloved family dog we had to euthanize, and a gunman who walked into our neighborhood and shot randomly at my neighbors, killing one of them. I have not risen victoriously by the pulling up of my bootstraps. Bad things have happened that I have zero control over. And so I have responded in a very human way. I have cried uncontrollably, wondered “what if” constantly, and hugged my kids too much. Something tells me this mother from the zoo has had a similar few days.
What I wish for this shamed-by-the-entire-internet-mother is that she would not stand alone. I wish that we would see ourselves in her trauma. I wish we would remember those times that we have completely lost control. Unfortunately, we are not likely to do that. No one wants to admit that they have lost control of their lives. Because admitting that you have lost control means thinking back to a time when you actually felt like you had it. And let’s be honest, that time has never existed.
Instead, we cling to our mirage of control and we isolate the least, the last, and the lonely. We judge the woman and her five husbands. We sneer at the tax collector and his embarrassingly pitiful prayer. We hope that the mother of the boy is sorry enough about the trouble she caused at the zoo. But we do this because we have the convenience of private failure. We can hide our family dysfunction and our marriage issues. Our lives still look held together and lovely. As long as we can keep up the ruse, then we can sit comfortably in the seat of control and judgment.
We will leave this mother in the dunce hat corner by herself, because we do not want to empathize with her. We do not want to see ourselves in her. One of my theological heroes, Mbird’s Jacob Smith, has been quoted as saying, “We are all three days away from being tabloid news. And most of us are on day two.” That mother got out of bed in the morning, made her young son breakfast, and excitedly told him that they were going to the zoo that day. And now everyone hates her.
She should have found the clearance section at a Kohl’s Department store and sat in the parking lot recording videos. Then, no one could accuse her of hating animals. Then, no one could talk about how she was the worst mother in the history of matriarchy. Then, we could all adore her.