# Stepping In the Same Blood Twice: The Riddle We Cannot Seem to Solve

June 1, 2022
Hans Neleman/Getty Images

It may sound like the beginning of a bad joke or a horror story, but it is true: Studying law, playing games and telling jokes often involve hypotheticals. “What if?” queries allow us to explore and map out various alternative theories, not unlike the “choose your own ending” books many of us read as children. Hypotheticals help exercise the mind, and offer endless paths forward to a series of difficult problems and questions that we might anticipate in real life. Hypotheticals, like proverbs, serve as the daughters of experience. And while one might suspect, to paraphrase Heraclitus, you cannot step into the same river of experience twice, it seems that hypotheticals refute this proverbial daughter by reliving the same experience over and over again.

I stumbled onto this repetition myself through none other than a hypothetical writing exercise in one of my courses.

At the end of this past semester I gave students an in-class writing assignment that involved a big “What if?” question: If you had Elon Musk’s 44 billion dollars, what would you do with it? Would you buy Twitter? If not, what would you do with the money?

As I waded through the river of grading, I started to notice a familiar pattern emerging in every single class. If the student was male, he wanted weaponry of some kind, or to have his body modified as weaponry. Think about that for a minute.

Bodies themselves as weaponry.

Most involved firepower of a high caliber. One student wrote about his desire to have the arm of Robocop. (“Just think what I could do with that!” he ruminated). Most wanted Iron Man’s suit to wield at their disposal, and quite a few wanted Batman’s choice of weaponry as technology. Since we are talking hypotheticals, I don’t need to have you guess which gun is the gun of choice in these hypotheticals—it is the very same gun we continually hear about in the news currents that wash over us almost daily. I even had one student say if he had 44 billion dollars, he would buy a naval war ship and he would blow up Disney World with it. I asked why, and he said it was mostly just a joke.

I even had one student say if he had 44 billion dollars, he would buy a naval war ship and he would blow up Disney World with it.

Mostly.

A joke.

So many of the past mass shooters have said in response to being reported for disturbing behavior, that they were only joking.

Joking.

Their jokes turned out to be future plans in plain sight. Not a proverb or a parable, but a riddle. A curious thing about riddles is that their solution is always part of the riddle itself. And with riddles something is always a stake, sometimes your very life.

Paraphrasing Freud, maybe a gun isn’t a cigar or a joke, but it’s just a gun. Wading deeper into the subconscious wellspring of so-called jokes in plain sight invoking violence hidden in plain sight, I also couldn’t help but think of Freud’s taxonomy of “Der Witz” that requires three people: one who cooperates with the teller at the third’s (usually absent) expense.

The feminine is often present only in its absence as part of a joke, as the butt of the joke as it were—present as a silent viewer overhearing dialogue on their pretend presence conjured not for reality, but to serve as an actor in another person’s imagined (but maybe real) joke. The answer Oedipus gives to the Sphinx’s riddle regarding who walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night is simple: man. Ah yes, but who walks up to a shooter to protect children completely unarmed while 19 men with guns hide behind a door? Who lies in a pool of blood clutching dead students? The answer to that riddle is also simple: woman.

Who lies in a pool of blood clutching dead students? The answer to that riddle is also simple: woman.

Dreams, Freud points out, are about the individual. Jokes, on the other hand, are a social activity.

Speaking of social engagement and hypotheticals: Not a single, solitary female student in my courses desired in their heart of hearts a gun or weapon of any kind. Not one female issued a call for destruction. There were no “jokes” that flirted with potential violence. The common theme of the women?

Fear.

Fear of being under a man’s thumb for their entire lives. They wanted financial stability so they could have freedom. They all said they would invest in public welfare, foster life in the body politic, in schools, in homeless shelters. They all wanted to give back to their communities, to their families, to society.

As I watch the news reporting on this latest mass shooting that will be embedded in the river of our collective consciousness, I am thinking not only of the dreams of the two women who taught students at Robb Elementary, but also of the waves of collective nightmares that will ripple outward for generations. I am thinking about the threats of rape the Uvalde shooter barraged girls with online endlessly, yet the young women reporting it were ignored before they finally resigned themselves to accept, “This is what life is like for girls.” I am thinking of the 19 children who cried out for over an hour for help that did not arrive until their bodies were already riddled with bullets. I’m thinking of Miah Cerrillo who watched the shooter walk up to her female teacher and say “goodnight” before shooting her in the head. The 11-year-old cried when she said she thought of the man shooting them and the 19 men outside with badges and guns who did nothing to save them for over an hour, but instead policed the parents as their children were murdered. She is afraid of men at age 11. And I can’t say I blame her.

Is our future going to look a lot like our past? Can we choose our own ending? Our very lives are at stake in this riddle, and so are the daughters of our experience.

Shellie McCullough is an educator, writer and lecturer in Higher Education. Her book “Engaging the Shoah Through the Poetry of Dan Pagis: Memory and Metaphor” is available through Rowman & Littlefield.

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