Yesterday I was on my way to the gym, mentally preparing for my workout as I waited for the light to change. I glanced over at the nearby gas station. Two young men stood in the parking lot, shouting at each other. One started toward the other man, the second one lunged at him, and the two came to blows. They backed off, still yelling, then lunged at each other again.
My heart pounded. Should I call 9-1-1? Drive past? I couldn’t drive into the gas station parking lot. I could only sit in my car and wonder what had prompted such violent outbursts from these unknown men.
Just then the light turned green. I drove to my gym, unable to forget the image, wondering what was happening now. Were the men still fighting? Would one or both be hurt? Would one get in his car, enraged, and drive recklessly down the road, endangering others? Did either have a weapon?
I called 9-1-1. After a two-minute conversation describing who, what, when, where and how, I hung up. The only question I couldn’t answer was one the operator hadn’t asked: why?
But another question lingers in my mind, too: what happened next? Did the police break up the brawl? Were the men gone by the time the patrol car arrived? Had either man calmed down?
What happened next?
It’s a question that often bothers me. It’s the feeling I have when I overhear an intriguing conversation between two strangers (or one person talking on their cell phone) at a restaurant or grocery store or in the dressing room of a department store.
- Did the cute coed break up with her boyfriend?
- Did the tween girl persuade her mom to buy her a string bikini?
- Did the guy stop yelling at his kids after they left the frozen food aisle?
I’m simply curious (or nosy and intrusive, depending on your view) and it irks me that my questions will remain unanswered.
It isn’t just in these types of this-doesn’t-affect-me and it’s-none-of-my-business situations, either.
A few years ago, my husband and I were eating at a fast food restaurant when a group of young people came in. As one girl walked past, I almost gasped at how thin she was. No, not just thin: skeletal. She wore a bleak, starved look on her face. “She’s anorexic,” I whispered. My husband nodded.
Something inside me prompted me to walk over to her. She was already sitting with her friends: arms crossed over her chest, slumped in the booth seat, no food at her place. I know I said something about having been where she was right then, but I’m not entirely certain what words I used.
She shifted in her seat. “I’ve been really sick,” she said, not meeting my eyes. I teared up and told her that I would pray for her.
The young man sitting beside her smiled gratefully at me. “Thank you,” he mouthed.
I walked back to my husband and prayed for her for many months. But what happened next?
- Did this young woman get medical attention?
- Did she recover?
- Did she continue to struggle with anorexia?
- Did she die from her illness?
I don’t know. It’s a terribly unsatisfying answer.
A news story caught my attention this past October. A fifteen-year-old California girl was gang raped outside her high school during a dance. Other students watched and did nothing to help her.
I was outraged and grieved: I wrote a blog post about it; I skipped a ladies’ night out to pray for her; I have prayed for her every day since then. My prayer journal has three pages of notes and Bible verses that I use while I pray.
Since her identity wasn’t released to the press, I “named” her: Sarah, the wife of Abraham, the mother of Isaac, whose barrenness and corresponding shame were removed by God even after all hope of childbearing was gone. It seemed appropriate, given that “Sarah” must have felt shamed and hopeless after the attack.
But like all news stories, this one disappeared into the archives after a few weeks. I’ve searched online for further developments and come up empty-handed. What happened next?
- Did she get counseling?
- Did she return to that high school?
- How is her physical and mental and emotional health now?
I pray for her each day and I don’t know what happened next.
Part of my irritation with the unknowable ending is because I am a storyteller. Every good story needs an ending. It doesn’t matter if the conclusion is good, bad or indifferent, but stories need an ending to be satisfying. Then I can breathe a sigh of relief, put down the book, and return to reality.
But real life stories don’t read like that. They are ongoing. Even when someone dies, it isn’t truly the end; there are people who must deal with the loss, this hole punched in the wall of their carefully constructed lives.
Sometimes I can’t know what happened next. But I don’t have to know, even when my inquisitive nature longs for the ending to be revealed. I don’t have to know what happened to the young woman struggling with anorexia, to Sarah as she grapples with what happened that night, to all the countless other anonymous people I’ve read about and prayed for over the years.
As Aslan puts it in the Chronicles of Narnia, that is their story and not mine.
My God knows the end of their story, just as he knows the end of mine.
For now, that is the answer to my question.