When young Sarah Milligan was eight years old, she thought her big brother hung the moon.
At the mature age of ten, he was bigger, taller, and faster than her. “And he was fearless,” she reminisces fondly. Like a western explorer, “he could go out into the woods and return hours later with an animal or some other fascinating discovery” she would have never been able to find on her own.
And with no other siblings or cousins in her small-town home of McAlester, Oklahoma, he was the most obvious actor to play the role of her hero. “I did just about everything I could to get him to spend time with me,” she explains. Like most older brothers, he usually had better things to do than play with his little sister.
But one day, while visiting their grandparents’ farm just outside Buffalo Valley, her brother actually invited Sarah to go out with him into the pasture. She recalls being so flattered that he asked her to go. Of course, she quickly accepted.
The Hunting Excursion That Changed Sarah’s Life
In short order, she and her big brother (with his rifle in hand) struck out on their adventure. They walked until they came across a thicket of small bushes. It was a big enough area to be home to all kinds of interesting things, but small enough that they could walk around it in two or three minutes’ time. “Okay, Sarah, you run around to the other side and make as much noise as you can,” he said.
So she ran a wide circle around the thicket, stomping and whooping, just excited to be part of this excursion. A few seconds into her ruckus making, she heard the thunderous “boom” of his gun. Although they hadn’t talked much about what her job was, she understood it was complete and ran back around to see if she had done it well. There her brother stood, with a wry grin, his rifle lowered, staring into the high grass at the lifeless body of a small rabbit she had just helped flush out.
Sarah’s heart sank. Perhaps it should have been obvious to her that this outing wasn’t just a hike in the fields. It was a hunting expedition. Her brother had just killed a living thing. And she helped him do it.
Looking back, Sarah remembers being so angry at her brother, but not for killing the rabbit. He often returned from the woods with birds, squirrels, and other small animals, and that had never bothered her before. She was angry at him for getting her to participate in it.
More importantly, she was disappointed in herself. She had looked past all the obvious signs of what was happening and was a willing participant. After all, what did she think he intended to do with his gun anyway? And what did she think she was scaring out of the thicket right into his crosshairs?
She was so focused on the thrill of being included in her big brother’s adventure that she looked past all of that. She didn’t take the time to think about whether she really wanted to help kill something. And that’s what disappointed her most. “It became a turning point in my life.
“Never again will I let this happen,” she thought. “Never again will I blindly agree to something just to get someone else to like me.”
The Lesson From The Rabbit
Like most people, Sarah faced many similar situations in life growing up. In high school, for example, just about everyone faces decisions when out with their friends about whether they’re going to drink with them, or smoke, or stay out late. Each time Sarah faced those types of situations, she asked herself, “Am I doing this for me? Or am I doing this to make someone else like me?”
If the answer was “it’s for someone else,” Sarah’s mind returned to the rabbit in the field. And she remembers the sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach she felt that day…not just the feeling of sadness for the rabbit, but the loss of self she suffered from being so beholden to what someone else thought of her.
And while she didn’t always make the right choices growing up, she recognized this gut feeling as a sign to stand back and evaluate why she was doing something.
Any time you’re in a situation where you feel pressure to do something you’re not certain you should do, ask yourself, “Am I doing this for me? Or am I doing it to make someone else like me?” Answer honestly, and act accordingly, and no rabbits will get hurt. More importantly, neither will you.
Paul Smith is a bestselling author who’s newest book, Parenting with a Story, documents 101 inspiring lessons like this one to help you (and your kids) build the kind of character anyone would be proud of. He’s a keynote speaker and trainer on leadership and storytelling based on his bestselling book Lead with a Story. You can ﬁnd Paul at www.leadwithastory.com and follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Photo by Nic McPhee