“And all the time–such is the tragi-comedy of our situation–we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
-C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
I wonder what “Jack” Lewis would have said about American’s current culture of death. Perhaps he wouldn’t say anything new, in light of what he wrote in The Abolition of Man. He was talking about gutting our society by removing God from it and that’s not an issue that’s gone away or been mitigated.
A commentator noted that these shooters tend to be men. I am a woman, but I’m not a feminist, so I resist the trap of believing that it is something inherent in the nature of their gender, though I do recognize that men and women are different from one another on several fundamental levels, not the least of which is that men are diagnosed with schizophrenia much, much more frequently than women. On the other hand, there has been a wholesale cultural destruction of traditional male roles in our society. Everywhere you look men are denigrated and made to look powerless, dumb and useless. I cannot help but think that these young men chose violence as a means to gather up some of the power that has been stripped from their gender by a society that thinks you lift one group up by pulling another down.
The problem is not reducible to men, however. It really is about the society we’ve built. It’s time to own up to the fact that this sort of thing – teenagers and young men walking into schools, movie theaters, and malls and killing people – did not used to happen.
Let me suggest that we are, in large part, lying in the bed we’ve made. The past tends to be the only dead thing that smells sweet, so I resist glamorizing it. It wasn’t perfect and there are many areas we do not need to revisit. We should continue to allow women to vote and still outlaw chattel slavery. Revisiting those things in our past the worked does not require re-adopting those practices that were unacceptable.
Our society has changed and not for the better. I don’t think we can blame acknowledging the equal rights of blacks and women, so we need to look deeper. And while we’re pointing a finger, recognize that three of them are pointing right back at us.
We need to acknowledge that we, as a society, have failed to guard our most important intimacies – our relationships with the natural environment, God, our spouses, children and neighbors. We now reap the consequences of isolation, destruction, and chaos in a world where instant media broadcasts tragedy to us in real time.
When the story of Sandy Hook Elementary broke, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote “Reports suggest that some have been killed in this latest Connecticut school shooting, with heartbreaking photos of kids fleeing the school. How many school and mall shootings before we regulate guns as seriously as cars?”
I respect Kristof’s obvious concern for humanity, even if I don’t necessarily agree with his political leanings. I can understand arriving at that emotional conclusion, but let’s be honest. Access to guns isn’t all that recent. When my older brother, who turns 66 next month, was in junior high, kids used to bring their 22s with them to school to facilitate rabbit hunting after school. His school was not unusual and it wasn’t a new phenomenon. Our parents remembered the same condition in their schools in different states, a quarter century before. Yet there were few if any school shootings before 1980.
My jaws clenched over Kristof’s question because the problem is so much deeper than his simplistic analysis. The “right” law would not have prevented this tragedy. It’s a complex problem that will not be solved by a simple solution. Mass murder of school children and mall shoppers implicates more areas of our lives than we’d care to admit. We must look at the basic assumptions of our modern era and boldly face the discomfort of looking backward to the past that most of us want to believe is invalid to determine how we got here.
I don’t believe top-down policies will fix any real problems. Our legislation too often medicates effects while pretending to solve causes. Kristof’s question, Obama’s executive orders and new Congressional action do nothing to confront that we are a society of depressed people, grasping for every numbing device in sight. Nobody just wakes up one day and decides to shoot people. That’s the end of a road paved with lives, schools, communities, churches, jobs, rejections and illnesses. We cannot start at the end of the road. We have to go back to the beginning to find the roots of the problem.
I don’t think the following observations are all of the answer, but they may be a beginning.
We live in a world that makes it increasingly difficult to connect with each other as we obsessively depend on machines and harried and largely empty professional lives. As we drown in the debt to pay for participate in our education factories, it becomes more difficult to own a home, but easier to become a workaholic. We worship efficiency during the weekday and indulgence at night and on weekends. We enjoy sex disconnected from procreation, then after we birth the children that result, we throw them into every babysitting device we can find and medicate them so they can sit quietly and not bother us.
I personally do not know my siblings, kids or spouse as deeply as I should and most of my neighbors are strangers to me. Can I get an amen? When was the last time your family sat down to dinner at the table and looked each other in the eye and discussed your collective day? How many of us can honestly say we ask tough questions to those around us? Do we respond well when others ask us? No, that sounds like submitting to “value judgments” and accountability and we can have none of that.
It’s interesting to note that after a shocking incident like Newton or Aurora, those who knew the perpetrator always express their amazement that “he” was capable of such violence. They had no idea things were that bad! Seriously? Do we really have permission to know each other that well? For that to happen, we would have to stop and talk to our neighbors. We’d have to listen to our kids rather than play Angry Birds. It’s easier to hide, and that is mostly what we do – with our noses in our iPhones, our eyes shuttered from the strangers on the subway, rushing home to our McMansions. We seek to become the gods of our own existence, avoiding intimacy and morality. We shut others out in a feeble attempt at control of our environment. We do everything in our power to not know the people around us.
So why are we surprised when someone around us, beyond frustrated at being ignored, seizes some attention by doing something horrific with a piece of the technology we worship?
It’s not about the guns. Nothing demonstrates that more than the young man in Wyoming a few days before Sandy Hook who killed three people with a bow and arrow. The weapon is a convenient focus, but the source of the violence is us. Until we accept that, we cannot posit a cause. And as the problem comes from American society in the 21st century, we also must recognize that it is as complex as the society we live in and that band-aid solutions are not going to staunch the wounds our culture has caused. We’re in trouble, folks, and we are the cause. Let’s stop focusing on how to use technology to control people and actually address people.