Two sets of parents lost their children the other day. One of those children shot the other at school, and then turned the gun on himself when the police arrived. As Ahnna Hawkesworth put it:
Carried a semi-automatic weapon and enough ammunition to kill hundreds of people.
On the school bus.
In a guitar case.
Within 5 miles of my children’s school.
Why did his family have semi-automatic weaponry in the house? I have that question along with many others, but I have to say I am far more worried about the mental health of our children in this time. The guns would sit there unused if no one thought about them. Why do so many children have the thoughts in their heads that cause these incredible losses? That’s what I really want to know.
This has become so commonplace that it hardly shocks us any more. It has become so commonplace that suicidal teenagers, in their hour of desperation, now consider Death by Mass Killing to be a viable option. A viable option. How on earth did we get here?
Let us leave aside the complex issues of gun regulation and mental health for a moment and look at a deeper illness that is afflicting our society.
Americans have long worshipped at the altar of the Individual. We no longer see ourselves as tribal and mutually supporting, which is how we evolved to be. Instead, we see ourselves as collective Lone Wolves, each competing with the other and looking after good old Number One. Now, “Number One” may include our immediate circle of family members, but it is a small thing, this circle. The majority of humanity lies outside of it. The majority of our communities lies outside of it. The majority of our neighbors lies outside of it. It is hard enough, in this day and age, to care for one’s own small circle, much less anyone else.
But even within our circles, many of us live in emotional isolation. The child feels isolated from his parents, perhaps because they’re just busy or preoccupied, or he knows he cannot meet their expectations, or perhaps the parents are themselves unhealed and self-loathing, and they naturally passed on their frailties to the child. The parents feel isolated in a world of corporate uniformity, where they are expendable and largely undervalued, and they work just to live, barely knowing their competing coworkers. How did my dreams come to this? Where did it all go?
The seniors are isolated in shining apartment towers, where other people are paid to care for them, surrounded by their peers in isolation. It’s hard to make friends when they might die next week. It’s too painful. Where are the children? Where is the laughter? What’s on TV? I wish I could hear it… Their children come to visit now and then, taking time from busy, busy lives, trying to make ends meet, struggling in a race no one can win.
The new graduates look out upon the world and compete for jobs that they are overqualified for. They have been competing since grade school, taught from a young age that they must be better than That Guy or That Girl if they’re going to make it. Maybe they could get pretty good at making coffee. What is out there for them? Where can they belong? Where can I find true friendship and connection?
We are fundamentally lacking connection in our lives. Oh, some people are good at connecting. Many struggle. Some never learned, because they had no one who could teach them. But the overwhelming majority of us suffer from a profound lack of connection. Who are your neighbors? Do you know them? Do you know what they like to do? Is your neighborhood well integrated, with old and young, with people of many colors and faiths? Do you judge them, or do you have compassion for them?
I believe that every person who comes across our path is an opportunity for us to reach beyond ourselves. It may be that a person who comes my way is in need of a guardian angel that day. I can be that angel. We all can.
You can be surrounded by friends and family and still feel isolated. Is the iPhone more important than a conversation? Do you have so much homework or work that there is no time for fun and joy? Are you so tired and overwhelmed that you can barely function, much less reach out to your loved ones? We are not slaves to our circumstances. We can make new choices at any moment. We can take steps to reduce our stress, bring joy back into our lives, and to sit and talk with real people, right now. We can learn to be vulnerable, we can admit to our mistakes, we can hug our children and help them to cope, even when it’s difficult for us to cope.
Competition discourages connection and encourages contempt for others. There is no need for competition. There is enough for everyone. Everyone has something to offer, but it may not look like what people expect or test for or hire for today. That does not make a person’s gifts any less valid. We must begin to help people recognize and cultivate their own gifts, regardless of whether someone thinks it’s “marketable” or not. We must begin to see that every human being has value. There are no “throw-away” people.
People are highly creative beings, but when the creativity is snuffed out, what is left? What should a young man do with himself if he has no options? Men are made to protect and provide and innovate, but what if they can’t do that? What if their beautiful minds are not allowed to pursue their gifts? Because “that class” was cut from the budget, or they couldn’t pass the reading test and therefore couldn’t qualify for extracurricular activities? Or if the corporate cookie-cutter job actually punishes creativity and rewards sameness and safety? What should a young man, who is effectively told to waste his precious brilliance, do with himself? There is no place for me in this world. I do not belong in these boxes. Nihilism is one small step away from boredom. This is why gangs and fundamentalism can be so attractive. It gives despairing youth a place to belong and to feel accepted. But isn’t it better to show them acceptance to begin with? Isn’t it better to begin to live as though we are all connected? (If you doubt that we are, see what happens when a major tragedy hits your town, and the connections will rapidly become clear.)
As always, change begins (ironically) with the individual. But when many of us begin to change, we all begin to change. Reach out to others. That stranger over there is your business. Because we are not a multitude of tribes. We are ONE tribe, the human tribe, and we must begin to accept and love everyone as we want to be accepted and loved ourselves. It is the only way.
I don’t know what pain that poor child was suffering that made him do what he did, but I do know that the answer is always LOVE. Love, and compassion. These are universal spiritual values, and yet, they are so often the least practiced. But that’s what they take: practice. Start practicing love and compassion. Make it a habit. Meditate. Remove some of the stress from your life so that you can breathe and relax. Learn to live joyfully. As you bring yourself up, you bring others up with you. You never know whom you will touch with your light, or whose life you will save.
Related: Letting go of violence