A few days ago the post office in Winthrop, Maine, burned down. Permit us, the people of Matinicus Isle Plantation, to express our sorrow and understanding to the residents of Winthrop.

We had the same thing happen here a few years ago. In April of 2008 our post office was entirely destroyed by fire. The loss hit this tiny community hard and caused a great deal of extra work for some. Built within what had been the old historic island store, the recently renovated post office was so close to the shoreline that the Land Use Regulation Commission, which handled our zoning, would not permit rebuilding on site. A new location for the post office had to be found and made ready, and that took a while. It was, all around, a pain — not an insurmountable obstacle, not a “nail in the coffin” of this small town and not, in the end, something with drastic long-term consequences — but a real aggravation. 

Some readers are already impatient: when am I going to state the cause of the Matinicus fire? Any good reporter would have done so already by this point in the article. As I am not actually a reporter, allow me to slip into the present tense for the moment. What if I said, “The cause doesn’t matter. It was clearly not malicious, your own property is not at risk, so what’s the difference to you?”

You’d likely be annoyed. It would drive some people about half nuts to get a response like that. But Matinicus had no arsonist who needed catching, no slipshod electrician whom all should be warned to avoid hiring, and no rioters carelessly tossing Molotov cocktails. It was an accident. Sure, a lesson should have been learned; that’s always the case. But — and I say this realizing that many will disagree — nobody off-island is or was disadvantaged by not knowing the details of the accident right away.

Here’s a radical thought: unless we are professionally tasked with investigating the circumstances of a tragedy, when people are still hurting “Do they know what caused it?” is not always the first question we should ask. 

Let me suggest — nicely — that we regular folks be patient and pick our timing. Supposing we try to ask something else first, something supportive. Perhaps we should ask, “What do you need?” or “You doing OK now?” or “Would you like me to come over and shovel your steps while you’re healing up?” Perhaps we say, “I’m sorry to hear that” or “Wow, must have been scary.” Or, maybe say nothing, and just listen. 



I am not recommending anybody hide the truth. As a journalist I would never suggest such a thing. It is understood that people naturally ask “What caused it?” out of conscious or subconscious concern: could this happen to me? But I have been through this myself, with an aviation accident five years ago, and I know what it feels like to have everyone demanding a hurried answer I could not provide. It’s not curiosity I object to, but rather the hair-on-fire attitude, the artificial urgency. Sometimes people egg on the feeling of loss, suggesting, “Hey, I’m on your side, I’ll help you be mad at the culprit!” That sort of solidarity isn’t healthy.

Occasionally people whose business it is not will be salivating for a lawsuit. That’s hardly a warm-and-fuzzy, supportive gesture to a person who has just been through tough times. That’s being vengeful, or greedy, or taking vicarious pleasure in the excitement of somebody else’s battle. Get lost.

We want to know who, or what, is to blame. If we don’t know, we speculate. We don’t like ambiguity. We demand answers. The suspense is killing us. We aren’t happy waiting and we’re terrible at accepting that something might not be any of our business. “Inquiring minds want to know.” “The public has a right to know!”

We might occasionally have to accept a good, honest “I don’t know” for an answer. Eventually, that reply will not do — but while standing in the ashes, such might be the whole of the truth.

The same goes for your buddy’s kidney stones. “So, do you know what caused them?” might be kind of intrusive, unless you are actually involved with the poor suffering fellow’s diet. Most likely, the question is impossible to answer. Let the questions wait until the pain is over. Don’t be too surprised if you ask that question and get a loud and impatient, “Dammit, how the hell should I know?!”

Besides which, you don’t need to know the cause. Should you ever get kidney stones yourself, it’ll almost certainly be for some other reason. Or no reason. 

Here on Matinicus, we hope Winthrop discovers the cause of the fire, but I’m not going to ask.