Unknown Risk Factor

In my wild and reckless youth, as my best friend and I would walk down Florida’s sunny highways with our thumbs sticking out, I understood why some people never pulled over to pick us up. Sure we were two skinny little blonde girls with a combined weight under that of an NFL kicker. Sure we were just out, being weird and having fun and trying to vacation on an extreme budget without a car. Sure we meant no harm. The drivers passing us by didn’t know that.

We each make risk-reward determinations daily – is it worth the delicious meal to go through the effort of cooking? does the current weather make driving now a bad idea? if I spend $40 on this shirt, will I regret it? How highly we evaluate a particular risk is going to be influenced by our history, our perceptions of the world and other people, and often our socio-economic position as well. I’m not best equipped to determine what’s “worth it” for someone else, but I am best equipped to figure out which rewards are worth which risks for me.

When men on the street talk to me, even if they are friendly and chill and mean me no harm, I view the potential risks as too high for the potential rewards and try to move as far away as I can. Even if there were only a 1% chance he would harm or threaten me, and a 99% chance he would be nothing but pleasant and friendly, I’d rather not take the risk. I don’t trust strange men, and I don’t owe strange men my trust. I don’t owe them my time or attention or politeness or a ride down the highway, and they owe me none of that either.

Given the pervasive reality of street harassment, I’m not the only woman to come down on the side of deciding social interactions with strange men in uncontrolled environments aren’t worth it. Other women do find the risk worth the reward, and that’s their assessment to make. Most people on the highway passed my friend and me by. Some people stopped and gave us rides. The people who chose not to pick us up weren’t “stuck up” or “bitches.” They weren’t being “teases” by flaunting their air-conditioned wheeled vehicles in front of me while I was tired of walking. They owed me nothing, just as I owe a stranger on the street wanting a friendly chat nothing. That some people picked us up anyway I’m grateful for, but I wasn’t entitled to a ride from anyone. I was an unknown risk factor.

Family Curse

Okay so here’s an old family story from before my time, when the family lived in Appalachia and made moonshine as a side business. Their house was old and simple and they had an outhouse instead of indoor plumbing. They had quite a few chickens, who had figured out how to get under the outhouse door and would peck at someone trying to take a poo, so people had to bring along a magazine to swat away the chickens.

One day a county tax collector was out to their house. My great-great-grandma was none too happy about the man poking around and asking questions about a still. Toward the end of his look-see, the man said he needed to use the facilities. Great-great-gran pointed him toward the outhouse. One of her kids asked after he left the room, “Won’t he need a magazine?” And she said “No, leave him to the chickens.”

“Leave him to the chickens” has lived on in family legend since as a curse for someone you’re going to let befall their own peril.

Deuteronomy 28

The first book I ever remember reading was Deuteronomy. Long before I embraced the works of Dr. Seuss or discovered the magical lands of Fantasia, Narnia, and Pern, I read about God’s threats to the Israelites, should they stray from his commands. I loved the cadence and rhythm to Deuteronomy 28 – it was almost a form of poetry – and I loved the drama.

I sat in the den on a blue gingham-checked sofa and read from my sister’s lavender, leather-bound NIV Bible. The first twelve verses of the chapter detail how the Lord will bless the Israelites if they obey the Ten Commandments, but it was the later verses I found so thrilling.

“You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.
Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed. The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.
The Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hands to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him.
The Lord will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land you are entering to possess.
The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish.
The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron.
The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.
The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth.
Your carcasses will be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away.
The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores, and the itch, from which you cannot be cured.
The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind.
At midday you will grope about like a blind man in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything you do; day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you.
You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and ravish her. You will build a house, but you will not live in it. You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit.
Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will eat none of it. Your donkey will be forcibly taken from you and will not be returned. Your sheep will be given to your enemies, and no one will rescue them.
Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation, and you will wear out your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand.
A people that you do not know will eat what your land and labor produce, and you will have nothing but cruel oppression all your days.
The sights you see will drive you mad.

It goes on from there, another 34 verses of curses. God threatens to throw the proverbial book at them if they fall or falter, up to and including genocide, cannibalism, loss of status, loss of livelihood, and the rape of a man’s fiancé. I think this is an odd book of the Bible to start with. Surely most children hear about Noah and the animals, or Adam and Eve and creation, or Jesus performing party trick miracles, before they read the details of God’s version of “justice”.

My mother tried to interest me in the blessings that started off the chapter as well; surely they held the same poetic appeal, the same cadence and music. But the blessings are a scant 12 verses long, and the cursings are 56. Besides, the curses were more descriptive. The sense of total destruction and utter woe is captured as well in this chapter as in almost anything I’ve read since in my life.

I think this was why I never believed the sentiment “God is love”. God was justice to me, not love. Love suggests something gentle, nurturing, and kind. Justice, on the other hand, makes room for both the carrot and the stick, heaven and hell, blessing and cursing. So my God growing up was powerful and just, omnipotent and omniscient, but I never thought he was all-loving or omnibenevolent.

(Originally appeared on my Old Blog.)