Friday, December 14, 2012

What we can do

Everyone with a blog will be weighing in on today's school shooting and I guess I'm no exception.  Hands down, the best thing I've read so far is this blog by my friend JTH who was the first one to tell me about the shooting.   He addresses the profound theological and cultural implications of this--questions all of us are asking.   He has all the right questions and some meaningful answers.

There is another question that we are all asking, too:  "What can we do?"  "Nothing," we think, feeling mired in helplessness.  Or, maybe, "Nothing but pray."  After all, few of us know anyone directly involved or have any way of tangibly supporting them.  I want to suggest that there actually are a few things we can do.

To begin with, we can do as Brene Brown suggests and remain calm and openhearted.  That means that we can avoid stereotyping and "othering."  No matter what color or age or religion or sexual orientation the shooter turns out to be or what kind of family background he turns out to have or what kind of psychiatric problems he turns out to suffer from, we can refrain from nodding and saying (or thinking), "Yes, that's how those people are."

We can refuse to blame, especially before we even know what has happened.  So far,  I've seen one Facebook post that places the blame squarely on President Obama and one that blames the cessation of state-sponsored prayer in schools.  That especially means that we reject any and all conspiracy theories, like the one that's going around that all the recent mass shootings are the work of the anti-gun lobby.  We can just stop it.

We can hug our children and tell them we love them and breathe sighs of relief that they are still here in spite of our painful vulnerability.  But we can do that without panicky clinginess that only scares them and us.   Yes, we feel so vulnerable and exposed in a world where random violence is so fearfully random.  But we can choose not to walk in fear or we can choose hope when the fear closes in.

We can rigorously examine our own attachment to violence.  Surely we can agree that one of the symptoms of our anxious society is the pervasive gun culture--cowboy gun culture, gangsta gun culture, paramilitary gun culture, video game gun culture.  Don't get me wrong:  the polarized voices are equally anxious.  The ones shouting that we need to get rid of all the guns are just as anxious as the ones shouting that we need a gun in every classroom.  At some point, though, we need to have a national conversation about our addiction to violence and it will be more effective if we'll start with ourselves.  Boo has babysat for suburban, middle-class boys under 9 years old who play violent shooter games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty all summer long.  Talk radio and TV often descends into verbal violence and no one protests unless it's coming from the "enemy."  Much of the fare on TV feeds our fascination with crime-as-entertainment and it's getting more graphic every season.  For many of us who drive in city traffic, road rage is our secret sin.  Let's just be honest about our own participation in this very violent culture and maybe make a resolution to step away from it in some significant way.

We can support any and all efforts to provide mental health care to those who need it.  Not every person who commits mass murder is mentally ill but most are.  The vast majority of persons who are mentally ill never resort to violence but some do.  Mental health care is expensive and my state, in particular, has made it clear that it is not willing to pay that price.  But the paranoid and delusional are rarely able to hold the kinds of jobs that provide health insurance or to navigate the bare-bones delivery system as it currently exists.  Their families have often bankrupted themselves trying to get help for their loved one and have often come up empty.  When we think about the things we want to do together as a society, surely we can provide better for those among us who have lost control of their minds.

We can recommit to empathy and kindness.  The people who study these things tell us that, as a culture,  we are 40 percent less empathic than we were when I graduated from high school.  That means that we have lost almost half of our ability just to put ourselves in the place of another person.  That scares me more than anything and I see evidence of it every time I get online and every time I counsel couples in my office.  That means that those of us who understand and value empathy have to work extra hard to infuse it into our conversations, into our relationships, into our parenting.  Let's recommit to that and to basic kindness.  Will that stop mass murder?  Maybe once or twice, but probably not.  But it makes our world a saner place to live in--a gentler place to live in--and that's part of the solution.

And, of course, we can pray.  My favorite prayer in times like this is "Lord, have mercy," followed by, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done."  We can pray the words of the Advent hymn, "Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; Fill the whole world with heaven's peace.  O Come, O Come Emmanuel."  Or there's this longer prayer from my newly ordained friend Matt's bishop:  "O Holy Spirit, the Comforter, visit the parents, siblings, guardians, friends and colleagues.  May they know in some new way your power to draw us into your healing, peace, justice, and compassion.  The darkness of our fallenness overwhelms us and burdens us with intolerable weight.  Give wisdom to lawmakers, emergency responders, pastors and counselors.  Enlighten and strengthen us for your service to one another."  Or as another pastor friend, Deborah, reminded me, we can pray the prayer of no words.

Last, we can refuse--adamantly--to succumb to hopelessness and helplessness.  As my brother-in-law put it, in a little different context, we can "stop all running in a crowded room, with our eyes closed, screaming that we are all alone in the dark."  Whatever you decide to do, that's a good place to start.

Lord, have mercy.

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