I woke my five year old cousin before the sun was up. "It's time," I said. "Get dressed."
A few minutes later, he shuffled into the kitchen, still yawning and rubbing his eyes. "Here," I said, handing him the backpack. "You get to carry lunch."
"It's too heavy. Why do I have to carry it?"
"Because I have to carry the rifle."
"Rifle" was a slight exaggeration. Since I was only eleven myself, I wasn't allowed to carry a real rifle. This was a Crossman single-shot pellet rifle, powered by a CO2 cartridge. At short range it came close to the power of a .22, if you had a fresh cartridge.
It was a Christmas present from the previous year. That spring I joined a half dozen neighborhood boys in a hike up the mountain past the last tract of new homes. At this point the woods went on for miles, with good walking paths and no fences to climb. We brought our BB pistols and pellet rifles. We shot anything that moved, although our main prey were the numerous gray squirrels that leaped and ran among the branches. After a few of these Saturday hikes the blue jays began to follow us and screamed loud warnings from the top of the pine trees. We quickly learned to make them our first targets.
I'm still not sure what our fascination was with killing things. I suspect it had something to do with the god-like power of taking life. We were too young to be preoccupied with creating life; that fixation would hit in a few more years. That year the thrill was to prowl as young lions in this new kingdom we had claimed.
I told my young cousin many stories about these Saturday adventures. I finally gave into his pleas to "hunt" with me one Saturday. As the first rays of sunlight began to peek over the top of the mountains, we quietly closed the back door and struck out at brisk pace towards the hunting ground.
The last house was soon far behind us. The trees and bushes were alive with fluttering feathers, scampering flashes of gray, and a cacophony of morning songs.
I spotted a robin serenading the new sun up ahead. I tried to point him out to my cousin, but there was just too much pulsating life moving all around us for him to be able to spot one lone robin. I aimed carefully for the red breast, and he fell to the ground.
We ran to the foot of the tree, and I fanned out the wings so he could marvel at the layered fullness of the feathers. I pressed the joint on the legs to make the tiny talons stretch out. I looked up, expecting to see fascination on the face of my young cousin. What greeted me was a little boy with tears streaming down his face. Soon the tears were accompanied by sobs.
For a moment I was confused. As I tried to grasp what was going on in his mind, I saw a beautiful bird announcing the joys of life with a song that abruptly ended as he plummeted to the ground. There was no way to undo the deed. This robin would never greet another sun. We left him where he had fallen and walked silently back down the mountain.
I was to return with my friends a few more times, but it was never quite the same. There was no adrenaline rush following a clean kill. A layer of sadness, which may have always been there, was now easily discerned just below the surface.
I have killed since then, and have no doubt that I could kill again. The difference is that I no longer see this ability as a quality that makes me a superior being. My cousin exposed a side of myself that I may not have ever seen on my own. We tend to hide from our dark side. We dress up the ugly parts with terms like "sport" and "trophy" and "harvesting the herd."
Scott Peck once observed that the word "live" spelled backwards is "evil." He went on to suggest that evil is that which kills. That definition may be a bit simplistic, but I think he may be dancing near the truth. Maybe that was the fascination of going into the woods to kill things. Maybe we were being lured by the power of evil.
Gandhi knew that only those who were aware of their deep hatred for the British could practice non-violent resistance effectively. In order to rein in our dark side, we have to face it. The most dangerous people in the world are those who hide from the potential for great evil that dwells within us all. I speak out against killing because I know I am a killer.
I now choose to follow the One who is the giver of life. This is my path to salvation; to choose life instead of death, not because of any love for life I found within myself, but because that love was revealed to me by a young boy one early morning long ago.