“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
My son just finished reading The Great Gatsby for his high school English class and so that probably accounts for why this quote occurred to me when I heard the news last Friday about the nurse in England who appeared to have committed suicide on account of getting caught up in a witless prank. A couple of radio DJs in Australia wanted to get a scoop on the pregnancy of Prince William’s wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, and so prank called the hospital, pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles. The nurse who took the call, Jacintha Saldahna, was probably busy at her job as most nurses are and so answered the phone in the absence of a receptionist and then quickly forwarded the call to the part of the hospital where the Duchess was being treated for acute morning sickness. And it created a sensation that proved, it appears, to have been finally overwhelming to this woman who ended up in the middle of it all.
It’s hard to say how much blame should accrue to these DJs, who claimed they never dreamed of being taken seriously for two seconds. Yet they did the research needed to find out where to call, they placed the call, they imitated the voices, and they got through to someone close to the story. Maybe there really is a level of innocence to all this. But there is also a grave level of carelessness here. In a world where Prince William’s mother is dead in no small part because a few photogs “just” wanted to snap pictures of the woman, you’d think folks would realize that when you’re dealing with real people with real feelings, things can turn serious very quickly. Even deadly serious. So here: the DJs were just going for a laugh so why not give it a whirl–it could be really funny.
But no one’s laughing anymore.
In Matthew 12:36 Jesus said that people would be held to account one day “for every careless word spoken” in their lives. The Bible just generally often warns about swearing too-quick of oaths or engaging in foolish talk. In fact, it’s interesting to see how often the New Testament warns against speaking too rashly–it’s a point on which both Paul and James most surely agree but Peter and John in their epistles say similar things about guarding one’s tongue. Carelessness can kill, and God knows this and so warns people about it often and with urgency.
There isn’t a person reading this–nor a person writing this–who gets through too many days without ever uttering the careless thought or sentiment or snap judgment. I know that I am often just not careful enough. Maybe if I tried harder, if I knew it could mean life or death, I would put forward more effort. It reminds me of a scene near the end of the film The Godfather in which Marlon Brando’s aging Don Corleone is advising his son Michael how to survive as the family’s head once the old Don was dead. His most basic piece of advice was not to be careless. “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to be careless. Women and children can afford to be careless, but not men.” His sexism aside, what the old mobster was telling his son is that one careless word or action in their dangerous world could mean the end of everything.
Mostly the stakes aren’t so high for us but then, sometimes the stakes are higher than we know. When we carelessly insult someone, pull a prank on someone, or engage in some other careless act that affects another person, what we many times do not know is what else is going on in that person’s life. Without our knowing it, we may push an already vulnerable person over the edge. In her memoir A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates tells of the night she left the hospital where her husband was suddenly desperately ill. She was shaken, frightened, disoriented. Upon returning to her car–which in her distraction earlier that day she had parked a bit crooked on the street–she found a note on the windshield: “LEARN TO PARK STUPPID BITCH.” A careless insult left on the windshield of a woman whose life was falling apart in ways the note-writer could not know about. But in his carelesslness neither did he ponder what effect his nasty note could have.
In England a woman is dead in no small part because a couple of people came up with a prank hardly worthy of a giddy group of middle schoolers who can’t think of anything being funnier than making someone else look like an idiot. But then, this kind of thing is encouraged by any number of puerile films that come out of Hollywood, sitcoms on TV, or YouTube videos in which folks will do anything to go viral. Getting attention and making other people roar with laughter is the main thing for altogether too many people these days. They’ll do and say almost anything to pull it off.
And that’s just careless.