I was a freshman in high school the year of the Columbine shooting. That day, my world changed. The term “trench-coat mafia” suddenly had colloquial meaning. A new threat of violence in the form of outcast, troubled teenagers emerged in a space where suburban white high schools were formerly immune from attack. There were no metal detectors in our neighborhood. That stuff didn’t happen to us.
A decade later I went to a “violence prevention” training for my job in high school counseling. The discussion focused on identifying and serving youth at a “high-risk” for perpetrating school shootings and related behavior. I found most of it to be outdated and out-of-touch, taking me back to the days after Columbine, the countless news reports chronicling the lives of the shooters: who were these kids? who were their parents? where did they live? what did they do?
All questions about their individual identities. All questions about their individual actions. All questions looking outward, seeking an explanation. Pointing fingers, placing blame.
In the years since Columbine, more tragedy. Virginia Tech, Tuscon Arizona, Aurora Colorado, smaller acts of violence in between. Each time, we cry out, feel fear, express sadness.
The media digs into the life of “the person responsible,” drudging up anecdotes from old neighbors, girlfriends and childhood acquintances. Speculation swarms about mental illness and a violent past. Some of us mourn with compassion for the darkness in the heart of the person who is moved to do unthinkable things. Some of us judge the actions of a criminal and the hopelessness of humanity. Some of us grow quiet and contemplative, some get loud with rage.
Political blogs go off about gun control and the second amendment. Twitter pours forth with sympathy and solidarity. We tune into dateline and CNN. We hug our families and tell them we love them. We post a heartfelt Facebook status. Or an angry, reactionary one.
Then in a week and a half we go on with our lives. Until the next catastrophe, when we begin again.
As I sit with the shooting in Connecticut, I call to mind lessons from my spiritual practice:
1. Times of darkness and deep pain present our greatest opportunity for growth.
Now is such a time for our country.
2. Growth Requires Change.
Creating a new outcome demands changing the behaviors, attitudes and perspective that produced the old one. Ask new questions. Reveal new answers.
Change the conversation.
3. Change comes from within
Maybe it’s time to investigate ourselves.
4. Everything is connected.
These unimaginable tragedies aren’t happening in a vacuum. This exact incarnation of violence isn’t recurring everywhere in the world. It is a reflection of our culture and connected to everything in it.
To talk about “gun-control” is an oversimplification. It may be true that more restrictive gun laws won’t end gun-violence, but it’s hard to ignore the way the two things intersect. There is no natural order of gun-ownership. It is a value choice. We value the individual right to gun ownership over the possibility of a gun-free country. That value projects a message. That message shapes our culture.
To talk about mental-illness is a starting point, not a solution. We acknowledge its existence but don’t always respond in a meaningful way. We know people need help, but don’t always ensure they get it. We debate about “entitlement spending” and complain about higher taxes. Mental Health resources cost money, but we are unwilling to pay. There is no natural order of how to treat the neediest in our population. It is a value choice. Our social services are minimal, and ever-diminishing. That value projects a message. That message shapes our culture.
There are other value choices, too.
We dead-bolt our doors and alarm our homes. We glorify individualism.We say awful things to our neighbors, families and friends. We judge others for how they dress, vote, pray and raise their kids. We consume violence: movies, video games, tv, the internet-our children do the same. We pay lawyers millions, and educators nothing. We campaign for democratic elections with hateful speech and character assassinations. We lock people up, or kill them, for doing wrong.
I’ve been working with Kindergarten through Fourth graders my entire adult life. They forgive easily and love openly. Until the world teaches them not to, they readily accept themselves, and others, no matter what. They are problem solvers with limitless creativity. Their lives, bodies, and environment change rapidly and they willingly adapt. When something isn’t working, they find a different way.
My heart breaks for the community at Sandy Hook Elementary. I can’t even wrap my mind around the loss of those kids. I can think of at least one powerful way to honor their memory: to recover from this tragedy just as they would. With open hearts. With curiosity. With courage and introspection.
Listening. Learning. Growing. Changing.
So we don’t have to relive this cycle, again.