Sticks & Stones

Thanks to the constant melee that is 2020, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about throwing stuff.

Literally and metaphorically. But mostly, metaphorically. When you’re full of angst at all times, existing in a constant state of flight or fight (but mostly fight, if you’re me,) and vacillating between incandescent rage and disassociation, it can be cathartic to just sort of…yeet away.

Tossing out cares like they’re cheap candy at a parade, dropping curses like spare change, slinging Shakespearean-level insults at the unfathomable knob goblins who refuse to wear masks out in public to protect others from their flying spittle. For example.

But also, sometimes, we get the urge to toss our judgement and our barbs a little closer to home.

In literary (and biblical) terms, this is often compared to the practice of “throwing stones.” Since the dawn of man (#yesallmen; this literally dates back to Cain and Abel) rocks and stones (or sometimes, sticks and stones) have been used as a metaphor for friendly fire.

Or maybe, not so friendly.

As a huge fan of etymology, I can’t help thinking about the many common sayings we have related to this allegory. And yet, if you take a second to really think about their meanings, they don’t all share the same moral. Which is confusing, to say the least. (And I never say the least.)

The one I’ve heard most often: “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” This is a proverb common in several European countries. Loosely translated, it means that if you’re vulnerable to criticism in a certain area (or maybe in general?) you shouldn’t make a practice of criticizing others in that same area. Or, in other words, “don’t start none, won’t be none.”

Metaphorically, this makes sense to me as a lifelong imperfect person, who has built a career out of fucking “upward” into learning lessons I never could by doing something right on the first try. And yet, I am constantly forgetting this lesson, challenging myself to be the best or not do the thing at all. Still, it’s extremely important to me that I don’t hold others to a standard higher than I hold myself. The more you believe your own hype, the more you ignore your own imperfections. That quickly becomes dangerous. Then, it’s only a matter of time before you cut yourself on the sharp edges of your shiny, shiny glass house. (Plus, it seems like it’d be a real bitch to keep that place clean.)

Then, there’s the OG classic, from Jesus Christ, according to some guy named John. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” This seems to go even further, suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t huck rocks at each other, unless we are blameless in all matters. Not a terrible rule to live by, all things considered. Unless we’re talking about self-defense, in the literal sense. In which case, a rock (or perhaps, a can of soup) can make for a handy weapon, if all else fails. But that’s the thing about context. It’s important to analyze WHY a certain thing was said, and by WHOM, not just WHAT was said. (This is a thing I was taught in journalism school, which many of my fellow journalists have since forgotten, unfortunately.) You can’t apply every rule, every truth, every piece of good advice, to every situation. There is ALWAYS an exception, a caveat, or a hidden cost to living by a rule instead of facing the unique reality of any given moment.

Finally, there’s the utilitarian argument to consider. Is lobbing shale really the best possible use of your time and energy, in this situation? As noted imperialist (and pretty dang racist, actually) yet oft-quoted former Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said: “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” I don’t agree with Winston on a lot. But in this case, he’s not wrong. Literally, I mean. Throwing stones takes time. It takes accuracy, hand-eye coordination, patience…I mean, you have to spend some time rooting around looking for a good sized rock that’s not too heavy to toss.

Yet, metaphorically (the wrongness of hurling objects at innocent animals aside) the truthiness of Churchill’s assertion really comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. In this case, is the “dog” in question a systemic issue that affects the lives of many people? Is the metaphorical canine acting out of malice, abusing its power, oppressing others, intentionally causing harm? Is the rock you’re throwing too small, or too large for the situation? Also, how far can you throw a rock? Is throwing rocks your job, your social responsibility, or simply a knee-jerk reaction to feeling powerless? Would it be smarter (or more strategic) to hand the rock to someone else who has a clearer vantage point of the target? Should you throw the rock now, or wait until you have a better fix on the situation? Is everyone else throwing rocks already? Taking a step back, are these other rock throwers ultimately creating necessary change, or raising awareness with their actions? If yes, do they need more rocks, or more support in other areas? If no, how can you use your insight and energy to find (or build) a more effective tool for the situation at hand?

Obviously, this post is not about actual rocks. Or even referencing a specific situation. It’s more of a wordy exploration of how we, as people, tell ourselves stories (so often that they become vague, folksy-sounding colloquialisms) that then become central to our culture and/or persona. If we don’t examine the WHY behind our beliefs, our sayings, or our actions, we find ourselves perpetually following in the footsteps of those who came before us. Those who made the same mistakes we’re currently making, but in slightly different ways. If you stop and reconsider, often, I think you’ll find that the originators of our most core beliefs didn’t really know what the hell they were doing most of the time, either.

So let’s maybe put down the rocks and talk about it.

(P.S. Again, I do NOT mean this literally. If someone is pointing a gun at you, kneeling on your neck, or choking you with tear gas, you should absolutely throw everything you have at them. This person is not interested in talking; and some glass houses are actually made of kevlar.)