[A note to the reader: I am not writing to reflect on the details of Sandy Hook but rather how we react to tragedy. I may modify this entry to be more specific in the future but have avoided it due to the acute emotional trauma and the fact that so many are covering the details]
We go about our day, distracted with thoughts, observations, opinions and lists. Suddenly, something shocks us out of it. A bad driver, a missed exit, lightning, news of an environmental disaster. Each one of these things invokes an emotion and pulls us from the minutia and noise of our internal dialogue. That emotion tends to manifest differently between an act of nature versus something done by a human. We tend to become angered when someone breaks what we see as the social contract; some of us more strongly than others.
When a tragedy that invokes human suffering is perpetrated by one or more human beings, rather than mere sadness, we move toward a decision, a rejection, judgment, or both, or more, but it is often swift and decisive. I presume the speed and decisiveness is an artifact of the want to react to such things in real time as they unfold in front of us rather than as they unfold on a screen. So the vast majority of us are helpless as we watch from hundreds or thousands of miles away. We are impotent, voyeurs, repeatedly reminded of the tragedy over and over by way of sensational news, tweets, feeds and real world dialogue heard by friends and strangers.
For many of us it is painful to be exposed again and again without being able to act decisively and affect an outcome; whether we are actually conscious of that pain or not. For many of us we simultaneously pull our loved ones closer and lash out at what we see as the enemy, the perpetrator, the predator. But for most of us it is an unassailable monster; one who cannot be reached. When we cannot reach the monster we try our best to quell the anger, fear, helplessness and frustration by creating formula to prevent future tragedy. Often this formula is grand and far reaching enough as to absolve us from actual, personal responsibility.
“If only everyone accepted Jesus into their hearts, we would never have to worry about such evil.”
“If only everyone carried a gun, we would never have to worry about evil people getting away with murder.”
“If only everyone stopped thinking that the world owed them something and took responsibility for themselves, we wouldn’t have to worry about lazy people lashing out in jealousy.”
“If only people would stop having babies at all cost and only have them when they know they can spend the time, energy and money on someone who will be a productive member of society rather than a sniper in a bell tower.”
“If only everyone just turned in their guns and we destroyed all guns we wouldn’t have to worry so much about violence and murder.”
“If only everyone stopped believing in a fictitious deity and used a hatred of nonbelievers as an excuse for violence, we would all be better off.”
“If only everyone would stop playing violent video games, listening to violent music, or giving toy weapons to their children, we would have less violence in the world and we would all be better off.”
There are several problems with the above statements. They are oversimplified, overgeneralized statements to answer a complicated, dynamic issue. There may be some truth to the spirit of each of these statements and yet the proverbial devil is in the details and underlying meaning behind the words. For example words like ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘everyone’, and ‘evil’ on the one hand, set the target outside the self and create an Other; a boundary between the speaker and the target. It rejects, quarantines, separates and/or segregates. This boundary also absolves the speaker from personal responsibility and/or personal action. These statements set the stage for a disagreement that helps distract the participants from personal action, gives some sort of sense that in fact the participants in the argument –are- doing something by having a dialogue. Doing something often does start with a dialogue, but it rarely ends with that dialogue if it is actually going to affect change.
I say this not as if I am not guilty of it. I am.
Whenever the gun (or honestly any) violence issue comes up I go right to the fact that we as a society, marginalize others, we send them away in one manner or another until they no longer feel a part of it, and why would they feel responsible to a social contract or covenant if such a thing was already destroyed by society in their mind? That we have such a poor infrastructure for social welfare and social justice it is no wonder that people are lashing out in violence, and they will keep doing such and keep finding ways to do so as long as we keep bringing them to ruin and not recognizing their humanity as they sit mired emotional Armageddon.
This time around I was exposed to a quote that wasn’t directly related, but spoke to me. “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity that belongs to us. When we see it as a Community to which we belong, we can treat it with love and respect” This was said by an organic dairy farmer and being a person who has watched community fall by the wayside and commodification become a pandemic I immediately associated it with the situation at hand.
What I must do next is recognize that I am personally responsible for affecting a change in that, if I am to think of my fellow human beings as a Community and not a commodity. Rather than creating a statement so large about so many that I subtly absolve myself of having any power to affect it, I must reflect on the feeling of powerlessness I have and find ways to empower the self and permit me to do something.
So rather than blaming guns, godlessness, games or government I must transcend that and reflect on my own power. I must re-frame the feeling of helplessness and impotence and stop clinging to the making of boogey-men to satisfy some false sense of agency. I must turn the ‘theys’ and ‘yous’ into ‘we’ and ‘I’.
From that point I must say *I* will do my best not to send another human being to a phantom zone of sorts; to send them to oblivion; to hate them. I will do my best not to explain away a tragedy with rhetoric that absolves me from action. I will do my best to not just cut and paste my political agenda into the solution for tragedy as it overgeneralizes what might honestly be going on. I will do my best to reflect on my own feeling of grief and powerlessness and what I can do to turn it to something productive rather than distract myself with designing an argument to win that will not truly serve to better the world.