Creation | Awareness: Life

The World as a Tool for Looking into Ourselves

And, the true story of the one-kid firing squad…

Johnny R. O'Neill


Seven smiling 5 and 6-year-old boys and girls, dressed for a party, squeezed side-by-side on a couch
The Burnt Mill Road crew, circa 1962

Adapted from the book, ‘Life, the Universe, God, and all that Stuff’ (2018)

“Shoot me, Johnny! Shoot me!”

That’s what the kid kept saying. We’ll call him Tommy.

Our moms were in the kitchen. It was the early 1960s and we were maybe five years old, playing ‘army’ in the rec room downstairs. Tommy had run out and came excitedly back holding a toy gun, which he promptly handed to me.

There was no fanfare about it. He just handed it to me, ran to the wall like the willing victim of a one-kid firing squad, that being me, and stood there, ten feet away, ramrod straight and still, and said, “Shoot me, Johnny. Shoot me!”

I thought it was weird. That wasn’t the way you played ‘army.’ But, okay, his house, his rules. It was only polite to shoot him.

It was an old toy. I could tell by the weight of it. It was heavy. In my five-year-old brain, old toys were heavy toys.

It was also weird because at age five you didn’t just hand your toys over to other kids. You showed them off first. You explained what it was and showed them what it did. But I didn’t have a chance to even look at the thing before Tommy had stationed himself against the wall.

It all happened really fast in slow motion.

I was just strong enough to aim it one-handed. Two hands on a handgun was not something you saw on TV in those days. It was all one-handed stuff. So, that’s how you were supposed to shoot a gun, as far as I knew, with one hand. I raised the gun and took aim. At only ten feet away he was going to be hard to miss. But the trigger didn’t want to pull.

“There’s something wrong with this thing,” I told Tommy. But he only repeated himself. To this day I can hear the words…

“Shoot me, Johnny! Shoot me!”

It felt a little silly, like I wasn’t strong enough or something, that I had to use two hands to make a toy revolver work, but that’s what I did. Now, with two five-year-old fingers on the trigger, I squeezed as hard as I could. It still didn’t move. I thought it must be broken.

I gritted my teeth and squeezed harder

The very real bullet went all the way through Tommy’s rec room wall and into the wall of the house next door.

It made a noise! Mothers came running. Pandemonium in the rec room!

Tommy was fine. Having to pull so hard with two fingers, I guess I’d cocked my wrists up, so the very real bullet missed him. By inches. As evidenced by the little hole that appeared in the knotty-pine paneling directly above his very lucky, five-year-old, not fully developed brain.

Tommy thought his dad’s gun was a toy, and I’d believed him. It didn’t matter to us that it was a loaded gun because that wasn’t our experience of it. To us, it was a toy. We treated it as a toy and played with it as a toy.

And isn’t that the way the world ‘is,’ for all of us, kid or not? Don’t we play with the world as we see it? Is there any other way to play with the world other than as we see it?

We assume there is a ‘right’ way to play with the world. We assume the world is a certain way. That loaded guns in the wrong hands are dangerous. They can kill. That’s the way the world is. That’s how we look at it.

What if…just a little thought experiment here…but what if tomorrow hordes of metallic aliens invade Earth, but to these aliens, lead is like chocolate. They eat it.

What would they think about our lead-shooting guns? What would be their experience of guns? When we shot our guns at them, they laughed because it was like shooting them with chocolate chips. They thought, the aliens did, that the strange, soft creatures of Earth were trying to appease them with flying food. Cute little things, humans.

Silly. But the point is that the experience of a ‘gun’ is relative to who or what is experiencing the gun. There is no one ‘correct’ way to experience a gun.

And that should show us that it’s not the ‘thing’; it’s the experience of the thing that matters as much as the thing ‘itself,’ because it’s the experience we have of our world around us that determines how we ‘play’ with the world.

Especially as a youth, when everything is new and fresh and we’re still actively learning our way, the experience we have of life at any point works to shape the way we view life from that point forward. And, how we view life, in turn, shapes our experience of life.

It’s a back and forth thing. Like a mirror.

When we look in a mirror, we see ourselves. When we look at a gun, we see not just a ‘gun,’ but our feelings about guns. And those feelings will affect how we deal with guns.

Faced with a gun, perhaps found in a drawer, if we’re afraid of guns, that will affect the way we handle the gun as we pick it up, or even whether we pick it up at all.

If we think it’s a toy, we might casually grab it. If we’re under duress, thinking there’s an intruder in the house, we may find ourselves uncontrollably shaking as we pick it up.

The point is, there is no such thing as a ‘gun’ that objectively exists as the ‘same’ thing for all of us. There is a thing we agree to call a ‘gun,’ but which is, in fact, many different things (many different experiences) to many different people.

A gun can be a toy, a symbol of repression or victory, a metaphor for war or peace. It might signify a distrust of the neighbors or society. It can represent safety and well-being.

It might ‘mean’ any number of things. And that meaning will affect not only how we view guns intellectually, but how we actually respond to them, how we handle and treat them — or even if we handle them at all.

When we look in a mirror, we see ourselves. When we look at a gun, we’re also seeing ourselves, in the sense that we’re seeing our take on guns.

And not just guns.


The husband sees his expensive, ratcheting, 13mm box wrench on the garage floor. The wife sees grease on a shiny tool-thingy on the garage floor. The wife sees backward letters on their child’s homework and wonders if he might be dyslexic. The husband sees the ‘C’ marked on the top and tells the kid to ‘work harder.’

We see different worlds. We see our world relative to us, to who we are. How we see our world is a reflection of who we are. And in that sense, the world is a mirror.

In looking out at our world, we see into ourselves.