Or the Problem of Ethics in the Dark
I learned the story of Cain and Abel around the time my younger brother and I were expected to share our first bin of Legos. After my five-year-old brain worked out how I could possess his half of my inheritance without getting caught, I conceived a plan to eliminate both “Abel” and the all-seeing God who would surely question “Cain” after the deed was done.
One of the funniest sight gags I ever witnessed was a one-act pantomime called Breakfast Prayer with Daddy. Devised fifty years ago by Rick Duerden, Glenn Bingham, and Butch Blackham, three members of my high school’s debate team. Not satisfied with the verbal gymnastics it took to win the state championship, they set themselves to writing and performing a visual comedy whose characters would not be allowed to utter a word. I fell so hard for it that I took on several versions of it over the years, even performing in it once or twice.
[ Sidebar: In preparing this post, I reached over the decades for help remembering which actor played which part in its 1973 premiere. Rick recalls the ensemble as an undifferentiated Lennon-McCartney-esque collaboration, so I’ll go with my best recollection without overly typecasting my upperclassmen. ]
One morning, as Daddy Butch dons his apron and prepares an elaborate hotcake breakfast, his son, Glenn, is up to his usual antics, tormenting younger brother Rick at every turn but always just out of Daddy’s eyeshot. No matter how vehemently Rick protests, whenever Daddy turns from cupboard and stove to add dishes or food to the table, he only ever catches golden-boy Glenn’s just-in-time impersonation of the perfect public angel, which infuriates “bad boy” Rick, whose poorly timed revenge draws Daddy’s perpetual scorn.
“Why can’t you be more like your darling brother Glenn?” Daddy seems to be signaling as he nearly pulls out Rick’s ear. But when Daddy finishes his preparations, seats the boys for breakfast, and dishes up their hotcakes, Rick decides to take matters into his own hands.
Just as Daddy closes his eyes to pray over the meal and Glenn reaches across to steal Rick’s hotcakes, Rick picks up a very sharp fork, raises it high above his head, and slams it straight down so hard it pins Glenn’s hand to the imaginary wooden table.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” Glenn inhales to scream. But before the blood-curdling shriek, one had still on the fork Rick slaps his free hand to Glenn’s mouth, stifling all sound. For his part, Glenn is equally keen to keep the whole thing under wraps so that Daddy — enraptured in praise to high heaven of Glenn’s virtuosity — might never be the wiser.
Desparate to keep Glenn quiet but in a panic to pry the fork from the table, Rick turns back and forth from Glenn to the fork, shushing his brother while simultaneously trying everthing he can think of — tug Glenn’s wrist (stifle scream); wedge knife under hand (stifle louder scream); slather butter on fork but lose grip and inadvertently punch Glenn (stifle roar) — until it dons on him. Standing one foot on his chair and the other on Glenn’s pinned hand, warning Glenn within an inch of his life, Rick places both hands on the fork, and yanks rhythmically (yank — stifle — yank) until with one one last heave Rick frees the sword from the stone, topples backward to the flor, scrambles to his feet, wraps one breakfast napkin around Glenn’s stigmata, and stuffs the other in Glenn’s mouth just as Daddy utters “Amen.”
Opening his eyes, Daddy looks up to see the pious Glenn bowed over, hands steepled in prayer, in what can only be the most profound worship.
“Aren’t we so blessed to bask in the shadow of Glenn’s holy light?”
As he surveys his creations, his obsequious smile drifts slighly toward Rick, who is, for once also bowed low. Rick is, of course, breathlessly doubled over in oxygen debt, a fact Daddy will blissfully never know.Richard Duerden, Glenn Bingham, and Udell (Butch) Blackham, Breakfast Prayer with Daddy
Breakfast Prayer with Daddy is an uncanny retelling of a prayerful comedy re-enacted every week of my childhood when, after church services, we all sat down together for a Sunday dinner of pot roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, and green beans or peas. At the height of my family’s prolific breadth, I learned two important skills I might not have picked up in any other setting.
First, in the service of two parents, ten children, a blind grandmother, and her deaf brother, it was my weekly chore to cut from two square half-gallon cartons fourteen perfectly egalitarian slices of ice cream — seven per carton; don’t try this with Neopolitan — no mean feat equipped with nothing but a meat cleaver. Second, and far more practical, was the art of knowing where to sit at a table whose serving plates might not always arrive chez moi with any food on them.
Sunday dinners were made more complex by the presence of two loop handles on opposite edges of the only dish not strictly controlled: a green enamel-coated metal bowl semi-filled with mashed potatoes. My dad carved the meat ahead of time. Complete ownership of the ice cream cleaver was mine alone. But mashed potatoes are not so cleverly subdivided, creating an oft-abused invitation to go easy, one more faithfully honored in the breach as the green bowl haltingly made its way to the end of the row. And since to accommodate fourteen and still wedge its way into the dining room, the table had to be narrow, suggesting to any two children facing each other that they grab a green handle the first chance they got. The hat trick was first to sit directly opposite the bowl, second, get one’s open hand quickly out of the starting block, and third, be the first to grip and yank hard at Amen. At least until my older sister, who would one day attend high school with Glenn Bingham, jumped the Amen and sometimes even the Dear Heavenly Father to secure the potatoes for herself the moment all eyes were closed. Her survival-of-the-fittest tactic managed to solve the tug-of-war problem while creating a new dilemma for the unfit: where to sit in relation to her? If to her one o’clock, and I am not on her good side that day (in more ways than one), the potatoes are heading clockwise. (And I’m going to starve.) A contest I could never win — it would be years before I met Rick Duerden’s younger brother Scott — I eventually took a lesson from cutting ice cream and played the law of averages by sitting opposite Rebecca at her six o’clock. That way, I wouldn’t go hungry and might even get lucky at Amen.
[ Sidebar: In reviewing this post with Rebecca, she reminded me of a detail I’m sure I conveniently left out of my seating calculus. To avoid pulling the handles clean off the green bowl, it was announced — possibly by Rebecca herself — that the child who volunteered to prepare the potatoes got her first crack at them. Since Rebecca always volunteered to help with the cooking, she was only preserving her rightful spoils. ]
I came to know darkness at an early age. An impressionable child, and probably already an introvert, I imagined stories, plays, and what scientists innocuously label thought experiments. A system architect, I am these days required to foretell the future in the form of a reference architecture, a kind of prediction that never comes completely true but is used to calibrate change decision-by-decision. In architecture, 2D drawings and 3D models can sometimes help clients visualize and respond to the end product before costs otherwise pile up in the service of the wrong endpoint. As children, we go through a similar process in our imagination, whether or not our architectures ever see the light of day.
I calculate the following story to have taken place sometime when I was around five years old. I can’t say whether barely five or nearly six since in those days — and still in these to some extent — I hadn’t yet begun to measure time sequentially but relative to milestones, like a sibling “brought home” from the hospital. Rebecca was already home when it was my turn, and my almost-Irish twin Roger took his turn 53 weeks after me. When Lydia came, Kennedy had just been elected, and by the time Emily got here, his WW2 biopic PT-109 saw all the boys our age building ships.
Roger is today an actual architect. A farmer to his rancher, I became a system architect, which means I pretend to build in theory what he creates in wood and stone. In those days, with access to our dad’s sustainable supply of discarded interior design samples, we took on some of the swankiest tree and underground huts our rural neighborhood had ever known. But gifted a box of Legos during our shared birthday month, we tried our best designs inside the home, a pile of plastic bricks dumped on the floor between us.
The problem of possession in a nine-sibling home is that because there is never enough to go equally around — think mushy mashed potatoes versus clean-cut ice cream — the idea of sure and constant ownership takes hold slower than in, say, my mother’s solo childhood. The father of my childhood friend Cynthia Covey (Haller), wrote of his oldest of nine children that the reason she didn’t let anyone at her birthday party play with the presents they had just given her was that it was essential she be given time to possess them before letting them go. I’ve never asked Roger if he remembers feeling the same way about our co-owned bin of Legos, but at age five (or four or six), like Cynthia, I was nowhere near ready to share. Unlike her, who famously gathered her gifts around a corner fortress, I began to consider more sinister tactics for hoarding. They came to me, of all places, from The Good Book
I learned the story of Cain and Abel around the time Roger and I both reached for the same plastic brick at the same time to learn there was only one left in the pile between us. We were each of us building ships — our dad had served in the navy, and the dominant reference architecture of our lives seemed to point us in that same direction — Roger’s was a destroyer like the one my dad floated in Asia; mine was a submarine I had seen on TV. So, after we worked out a temporary compromise for that particular piece, and with the Bible to justify me, my five-year-old brain worked out that the only way I could possess Roger’s half of my inheritance would be to eliminate both “Abel” and the all-seeing God who would surely interrogate “Cain” after the deed was done.
Cain killed Abel with a large stone. The Bible doesn’t say how, but I pictured him sneaking up from behind. Living outside city limits just down from the mountains there were always plenty of lethal rocks lying around; our gardens were full of river rocks mined from the canyon. Check.
But what do I tell God when he asks me where Roger is?
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Check.
What about “blood crying out from the ground or something?” I’ll just run away. Check.
But to where? Hmmm.
Reviewing possible escape routes — east to the mountains, north to mountains, south to the mountains, west to the lake, I was boxed in. Was there no place God wouldn’t find me? How come he didn’t know where Abel was?
I don’t remember how many fruitless iterations it took, but at length, I came to the conclusion that the only way to escape the all-seeing eye of God was to poke it out, of course.
Or maybe even worse.
A rock wouldn’t do. Unlike Roger, God would surely be too tall. And the possibility of sneaking up from behind seemed out of the question. I’d need to be standing pretty close. My pocket knife hidden in my hand, blade open. Which he would see! If only I had a switchblade. But even then, he would know. God knows everything. But even before it happened? Then why didn’t he stop Cain? I’d have to be quick.
Having thus chosen my murder weapon, I casually wondered if I would be the first to attempt such a feat. Who would want to kill God? (Who indeed?) If he’d had practice, surely he’d be ready to stop me. I’d have to have more practice. But even if I could move my arm in a lightning-flash arc, can’t God read minds? He’d know even before the signal to strike left my brain. Wouldn’t he?
If I could just figure out a way not to think about it ahead of time. Pounce with no warning. That’s it! I can’t even think about it. How could he possibly know if I couldn’t possibly know myself?
But if I completely emptied my head, how would I remember my plan? I’d have to stand there next to him, talking about the Bible while thinking about, say, Lego-powered submarines, until it randomly entered my head that if I didn’t, right then, rise up and kill God, there would be no hope of later slaying my little brother and getting way with It.
“Scott, it’s God we’re talking about here.”
“Wait, what? Who are you?”
“Do you honestly think your five-year-old brain can act on a random thought fast enough for God not to see you coming? Do you actually intend to kill God with a pocket knife?”
In business school, Dr. Arvind Bhambri, USC Marshall’s professor of strategy and leadership, had us review an ethics study about a fellow who refused to lower the price of his product line for new customers without passing along similar savings to current customers. In some situations in the U.S., that kind of price discrimination is illegal, and the fellow judged the request not to be illegal but disloyal to his current customers. Refusing to compromise, he ended up losing his job, his home, and eventually, his marriage.
“The guy was a fool!” offered a classmate I’ll call Sonny. “Price discrimination is never enforced, and even if it was, this guy was an idiot to jeopardize his career and his marriage just to prove a point.”
There were a few counterpoints, but for the next twenty minutes, Sonny dominated; some things were just not negotiable, like losing one’s job on principle.
Then, as was not his custom, Dr. Bhambri introduced a special guest and asked him to come down from the top of the stadium seating where he had been sitting during the debate. As the stranger descended the stairs, the whispers began
“Oh, my cow! Is that— ?”
“It’s not T.J. Eckleberg,” I should have said.
“That’s the guy. It’s gotta be.” … “Are you sure?” … “Who else could he be?” … “Sonny. I think you’ve been had.”
And sure enough, for the next hour, we got to hear the former product manager’s side of the case study; and watch Sonny — whose name and countenance I have neither disguised nor hidden — berate him in the sunlight of day and to his face for not looking out for number one.
“I think you’re a coward and a fool for what you did to your life — and your wife … Why couldn’t you just claim you didn’t know the law? … Who reads the fine print, anyway? … I would never in a million years … Unbelievable!”
When class ended, Sonny moved in to double down up close and personal until others — dozens of us — managed to crowd him out to shake the product manager’s hand.
As a five-year-old, the moment I understood my cosmic dilemma to possess my brother’s half of my birthright while preserving intact my soul to be unwinnable, with a knowing wink to what might have been heaven, I knew what I had to do. But as I write this post, I wonder not for the first time what anyone foreign to my childhood peephole but within eyeshot of my pen will make, ex post facto, of what some might consider an early onset sociopathy. And while I’m relieved to consider how the light that pierced the nethers of my emergent thought conspiracy that dark night in 1962 (or ‘3) guided me down the classroom stairs and into the light, I do still puzzle over the role played by silent darkness and invisibility in a child’s — or grown adult’s — rationalization process. How many times did I use as a kid the phrase “But I didn’t know” (making sure always to draw out the word knooooooow) as a get-out-of-jail card to avoid declaring the past? How often do I shrink from brutally diagnosing the present to go on pretending I live in some other dimension of It? How frequently do I avoid any attempt to foretell the future?
When she was four, my precocious sister Mary asked me a profound question that still resounds in the “I didn’t knooooooow” chamber of my memory. I was driving her to visit our mother’s hometown, past what had once been our grandmother’s and her brother’s house before they came to live with us.
“Scott, how can you see in the dark?” she asked me. “And why aren’t we crashing into all the other cars?”
At first, I didn’t understand where Mary was coming from. It was broad daylight. Overcast sure, but nowhere near “can’t see in the dark” territory as we made our way between Spanish Fork and Payson. But as I glanced over at her — four-year-olds could ride in the front seat in those days — I instantly knew what she was asking and why it so puzzled her. Mary had closed her eyes. If she couldn’t see what was happening in the road ahead, how then could I?
“Do you actually intend to kill God with a pocket knife?”
I could hear whoever or whatever might have been listening in on the silent machinations that would soon have me swimming in a mess of Legos.
“He is God, for heaven’s sake.”
But exhausting every scenario to include that the only of my little conspiracy’s success would be to kill God; except that the only way to achieve that, so far as my five-year-old brain could fathom, would be not to kill him.
“How convenient for him,” I said to no one in particular.
But what a relief for me. And just like that, then and there, no comebacks; I was the one who was slain.
Is the problem of ethics in the dark an actual one, and if so, for whom? If a tree falls, if a mime screams, if a child imagines but cannot carry out the impossible, if someone is being talked about beyond their back, is any of that even real? When I consider the tentative existence of a thing before it actually exists — an accident prevented, wind before or after blowing, decisions made but not executed, architectures designed but not made flesh — I sometimes wonder which is less real, a temptation relished or its instantiation? Like the light from an exploding supernova appearing for the first time when its hundred million lightyear journey reaches our retinas, might there not have all along been someone silently watching us in the dark?
- Wayment, Thomas A., The New Testament (Kindle Locations 4702-4703). Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book. Kindle Edition.