Recently, a friend of mine was stung by a bee.  While this may sound like a relatively commonplace summer occurrence, those who were there would tell you otherwise.  In fact, they might even describe it as a scene straight out of Apocalypse Now.

We were enjoying a peaceful Friday afternoon with our families at the local pool, when all hell broke loose.  A truly bizarre chain of events (which may or may not have included almost tossing a baby) led to my friend, a hapless young soldier on the battlefield of familial amusement, stepping on the tiniest landmine – a very angry relative of the Honey Nut Cheerios mascot.

While the women and children cowered in fear behind the plastic lawn furniture (not an exaggeration), he grasped his foot in pain, alone on the Astroturf.  I hurried to the scene, securing the perimeter and tending to my wounded comrade.  It was at this point that I found myself doing something that I hadn’t done in over 15 years: offering medical advice.

I explained that the best way to treat his bee sting (especially with Shabbat rapidly approaching) was by applying a paste consisting of meat tenderizer and water directly to the affected area. (It did take a while until we understood each other: “Meat tenderizer?!  What, like a meat mallet?”)

As I disposed of the winged perpetrator’s teeny carcass (a respectful burial amongst the ice cream wrappers), I wondered why this experience seemed so eerily familiar.  The son of a pediatrician, I revered medical professionals and very rarely dared to offer more than an aspirin to friends and family.  But this wasn’t the usual guilty feeling for overstepping Hippocratic boundaries.

Why had it felt so strange recommending THIS remedy?

And then it all came back to me.

The year was 1998, and we, the senior class, had organized our high school’s end-of-year barbecue fundraiser.  We sent the invitations, bought the meat and supplies, and even built an impressive barbecue pit out of cinder blocks.  Though our teachers didn’t love the idea, we had every intention of manning that monstrous grill all by ourselves.

When the festivities began, a friend of mine – let’s call him “Moe” – took the first shift at the grill.  He flipped burgers for hours before turning in his apron.  But before he did, he decided to tidy up the cooking surface.

The charcoal had been unevenly distributed, and the briquettes had all but disappeared from one side of the barbecue pit.  Moe assumed that the grates had cooled on that side of the grill and reached out to grab one…with his bare hands.  Needless to say, he was wrong.

Moe recoiled in pain and fell to the ground in a heap.  His hand turned bright white and then flaming red.  And then he started screaming.

A caricature of “Moe” from our high school yearbook. (By Chanan Baer)

I was nearby and ran over to see what had happened.  Two other classmates – let’s call them “Larry” and “Curly” – followed closely behind me.  As he writhed in pain on the ground, our newly-formed tribunal of teenage nitwits convened to decide Moe’s fate.

“Should we take him to the hospital?”

“Maybe we should just put ice on it?”

While we took our time weighing all of our options, Moe began fantasizing about chewing off his own arm to stop the pain.  Just then, I had a flash of inspiration.  I knew exactly what to do.

Kind of.

The previous summer, my father had reviewed the basics of grilling safety with me.  He explained that the two most common grilling injuries, burns and bee stings, should be treated by the immediate application of silvadene cream and meat tenderizer powder respectively.  Almost a full year later, I tried to remember the details of that important father-son chat.  I knew that one of those two topical remedies would ease Moe’s pain and send him down the road to recovery.  But at that stressful moment, I simply couldn’t remember which one.

So I guessed.

We grabbed Moe by his good hand and hoisted him to his feet.  I guided Moe down the hill to the local shopping center, leaving Larry and Curly to run interference for us with our teachers.  When we reached the supermarket, we made a mad dash for the condiments and spices aisle.  It took me a minute, but I found the meat tenderizer.

After dodging curious glances from the cashier (Moe’s hand was turning several different unnatural colors by this point), we parked ourselves on a bench outside the supermarket and pried open the ‘miracle powder’.

“So, how do I do this?” asked Moe. “Do I just pour it on?”

I didn’t quite remember the instructions for proper treatment, so I guessed.  Again.

“Sure,” I said in my most convincing voice, “and you should probably rub it into the burn.”  It just felt like the right thing to say.

Moe hesitated for a moment and then poured a third of the canister into the palm of his burnt and discolored hand and began to rub it in.

A few seconds passed.

“It’s starting to tingle,” he said.  “Does that mean that it’s working?”

This time, I didn’t answer.  I was lost in thought, wracking my brains for additional details from that important chat with my father.  A moment later, I was jolted back to reality when Moe screamed.  Much, much louder than before.

“It burns!  It burns!” he shouted, rolling around on the concrete like a man on fire. “Make it stop!”

All of the blood drained from my face.  My mistake was painfully evident.  Painful to someone else.

“It was the silvadene cream,” I muttered dejectedly as I darted back into the store.

I emerged seconds later with a bottle of water.  Carefully, I helped Moe wash the powder from his hand.  Just then, Larry and Curly pulled up in Larry’s car.  We hopped in and told Larry to take us straight to the emergency room.

To say that the emergency room doctor was bewildered by our stupidity would be a gross understatement.  As she applied silvadene cream (Dammit!) to Moe’s hand, she lectured us on the importance of involving adults in all medical emergencies and the dangers of self-medicating.

Mortified, I vowed to keep my medical remedies and advice to myself from that point forward.

Flash forward to the year 2013, and there I was giving the same medical advice to a friend.  Thankfully, I got it right this time.

“So, what changed?” I wondered as I packed up the pool toys.  “Has the trauma worn off after 15 years, or am I just becoming nosy in my old age?”

Enter Socrates.  (Not to the pool.  Just this essay.)

The celebrated Greek philosopher is quoted as saying, ‘True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing’. (Don’t be so impressed.  I’m only familiar with the quote because I’m a huge fan of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.)

The lesser known ending to that statement is ‘And in knowing that you know nothing, that makes you the smartest of all’.

In other words, one who realizes that he has a lot to learn will become a devoted student of life, committed to growth and learning from his own mistakes.  By pursuing wisdom and striving to expand his emotional intelligence, one will achieve true greatness.

Though I wish the meat tenderizer incident of ’98 was my last major screw up, those are simply not the facts on the ground – I stumbled many, many times over the past 15 years.  But that episode was a turning point for me.

It was a wake-up call that forced me to reexamine how I was plodding along the road of life and helped me view each subsequent incident (painful, embarrassing or disappointing) as a unique learning experience.  I became committed to mastering the art of learning from my mistakes (as well as those made by others), and trained myself to focus inward and outward, and simply just to focus.

So, what changed after all these years is that I have arrived.  And it ONLY took 15 years. (Stop rolling your eyes, ladies.  It takes “boys” longer.)

I am finally aware of my limits and how much I still have to learn.

I am truthful (to myself and others) about my strengths and my weaknesses.

I can see the forest for the trees.

But, most importantly, I can tell the meat tenderizer powder from the silvadene cream.

(Sorry about that, Moe.)