I got to see a good friend of mine the other day. She’s about to start her senior year of high school, in a particularly crappy school. I’ve known her since she was 12. She’s smart and talented and insightful. Unfortunately, being a teenager she’s mostly blind to this fact about herself.
She recently read Catcher in the Rye. It should be stated this is one of my favorite books. Not my favorite by Salinger but up there. She was trying to tell me about how she felt, how her friends made her feel – you know the difficult minefield dodging that is high school – and she was using Holden as an example, specially Holden’s feelings about the ducks at the lagoon in Central Park.
For the sake of context, Holden asks a few people in the book, mostly cab drivers, where the ducks go.
One of the actual quotes is as follows:
“I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.”
So as my friend is telling me about this, I can see the tears, two big fat ones that roll down her cheeks before she can even get to the point. And the point is this: My friend worries about the ducks.
And I understand her cause I also worry about the ducks. And the snails. And 19 year old boys hiding in boats.
Let me back up. If you do a quick search you’ll get a lot of “theory” behind the ducks. What do the ducks mean? What is Holden really worried about? You’ll read things about how it’s his transition from childhood to adulthood (caring about the ducks is considered childish); you’ll read that it represents death and Holden’s fear of it and his grief over his deceased older brother; that it stands for Holden’s understanding that life is cyclical. That the ducks returning means Holden will return. Persevere. Survive.
And maybe those are true. I’m certainly not a literature scholar (just a reader) so I’m in no position to judge alternate interpretations. But to me, the ducks are about empathy.
Empathy is defined as the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being.
Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
On my old walk to work, I used to pass a very large house. At the edge of their property was a stone wall and a large cherry blossom tree. I loved that tree and when I was passing one day I noticed that the stone wall had dozens of little tiny snails on it. I would stop on my walk and trace their spirals of their shells with my fingernail. I loved those snails. I love that they existed on this wall, in this corner of Brooklyn, on this planet spinning in all that lonely space.
But I also worried about these snails. I was careful when I walked, sure not to step on any of the ones that had migrated down the wall to sidewalk. I was careful about the ones that could be under leaves. I was terrified of the notion of crushing one of these poor things under the hard hard heel of my boot. And I was terrified about other people killing them. Other people wouldn’t worry. They wouldn’t fret about snails. They’d probably just laugh or worse, not even notice.
These snails could stop existing and they wouldn’t even notice.
I worried all the time about snails.
Where the ducks go.
Nineteen year old boys who hide in boats after doing horrible things.
I tried to tell my friend what a good thing it is. How empathy will save her. Yes, it will break her heart and yes she will cry a lot but that one day she’ll realize that it is her soul – that her capacity to empathize is what makes her the remarkable human I am privileged to know.
I’m constantly told I’m “overly-sensitive” and not surprising, I’m sensitive about that word.
As if there were was only so much sensitivity a person should have. As if their heart could only hold so much and mine, holds too much and that is a weakness. That is something fundamentally faulted.
……And when the wizard gets to me I’m asking for a smaller heart……”
-Trout Heart Replica by Amanda Palmer
But what I want my friend to know is that she shouldn’t want a smaller heart. She should want everyone to have a heart the same size as her, the kind that keeps growing, the kind that keeps changing. The kind that has the courage to ask “How are we failing each other?” and “What can we do better?”
I want to empathize with everyone. Every horrible monster this civilization creates and every truth seeker and every saint. All of them.
So yes, what about the ducks?
What happens to the ducks?
Everyone should want to know where the ducks go.