Archive for the ‘Examined living’ Category

Our Raging World   6 comments

The United States has become an angry society. Lots of people would like to blame the gun culture, video games and movies for our growing culture of violence, but I think we need to examine ourselves. Do you drive? Are you a respectful driver who stays in your lane, maintains a moderate speed and smiles at the toll booth girl? Or are you weaving in and out of traffic, accelerating rapidly, slamming on your brakes and gesturing menacingly at your fellow drivers?

Before I wrote a word, I went out and researched this topic. The issue of aggressive driving has been addressed in plenty of articles, but it was the comments to those articles that fascinated me. “Well, for every aggressive driver out there there’s 3 or 4 bad drivers that force the rest of us to deal with them. Get the bad drivers off the road and aggression would end.”  I suspect this commenter is in the second group of drivers and the “bad” drivers are in the first. His frustration with their polite driving is a symptom of the rage that you can see all throughout society.

I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but the 21st century has mostly been a decade of venting our spleens and now our young men are shooting strangers in public venues. What is wrong with us? Is it really just that we have guns in our homes? Maybe we need to take the cars away too because road rage kills far more people than guns do. According to the FBI’s latest statistics, so do fists and feet. We can’t do without those, so maybe we need to look elsewhere – away from the tools of rage to the source of our rage itself.

Politically, we’re a deeply divided nation struggling among ourselves over the fundamental nature of our governmental system. Economically, nothing makes you angrier than not being able to find a job so you can feed your family or feeling trapped in a job you hate because of limited choices in the job market. Socially, we’re also grown extremely divisive. For every us there is a them and there is an increasing desire among some groups to control “them”. As a society, we feel overwhelmed and overstimulated, in debt, trapped, failing, undervalued, invisible and silent, tyrannized by greater powers, and unable to control the environment around us. If the United States were an individual, we’d be at risk for domestic violence. And, what a surprise – we collectively show all the symptoms!

Anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion. There’s nothing wrong with being irritated over some of life’s difficulties. Your husband leaves the toilet seat up and you fall in. Do you feel valuable to him? Does your wife leave the grounds in the coffee maker for you to deal with? Do you feel validated? Those are normal life reactions. The instinctive, natural way to express anger is to respond aggressively. Slam the seat down, call your husband a jerk and leave the coffee grounds in the maker for him to deal with. Biologically, our bodies don’t know the difference between irritation and response to a threat. Anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviors, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary to our survival. When life’s stressors are coming at you at a million miles an hour whenever you’re awake, you’re in a constant state of adaptive response to threat. Our modern society, with our instant access to news on a 24-hour cycle and all the stressors of jobs, government, regulation, debt, smart phones, and just the sheer number of activities we feel obligated to participate in … no wonder we’re angry to the point of rage. We have left the realm of normality as a society and we wish we could slap someone to set everything right.

We, rightly, think that walking into a mall or movie theater with a collection of guns and randomly shooting at people is not a normal reaction to life stressors. If only we were still normal! Our society is collectively stressed out and constantly enraged. Our driving behavior and Internet communications show that far too many of us think it’s acceptable to inflict emotional harm on others when they’re stressing us out. Add to that a little schizophrenia, thousands of images of simulated murder, an absent father, a society that does not value those who can’t handle stress and is constantly presenting new threats to deal with and I don’t wonder that an occasional 20-something man starts shooting at strangers in a gun-free zone.

Thirty years ago, there was a popular psychological movement that said “holding in anger is unhealthy. You should let it all hang out. Yell at your spouse, flip off the bad drivers, and tell subculture groups you don’t like that they’re evil.” Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth that drives an increase in anger in general and pushes some people to hurt others. Research has found that “letting it rip” with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you’re angry with) resolve the situation.

So what’s the answer? We don’t need more laws to change our collective behavior. Taking control away from people who are already feeling out-of-control escalates the behavior. A top-down approach will breed rebellion. Society is made up of individuals, so individuals working toward a common goal can affect society for the better. We need individual self-examination and individual self-control. Shut off the smart phone and the TV. Spend some time contemplating your navel or read a book. Take a deep breath. Relax. Mind your mouth (or your typing fingers). Don’t say it. Don’t use the gesture you want to use. Control yourself. Adopt reason. Few things in life are the end of the world and getting angry over trivial issues leaves you with no energy to address big ones.

Sometimes, our anger and frustration are caused by very real and inescapable problems in our lives. The economy stinks and our government is making it worse. Some of us are drowning in debt and the rapidly inflating cost of living. Anger over that is not misplaced, and it may provide the energy for change in our society, but I submit that there are no quick fixes. The cultural belief that every problem has a solution and that the problem is “other people who just won’t get on board” adds to our frustration. A society built on individual rights and responsibilities may not provide immediate solutions. It doesn’t mean you subjugate the half of society that values personal liberty in order to force your “solution” on society. Tyranny rarely provides ownership and maybe our solutions will ultimately be found in how we handle and face problems rather than solving the problem itself.

Maybe if we’d all slow down, listen to one another, consider that the “other guy” may have a sliver of sense among a wagon load of stupidity, stop jumping to conclusions over sound bites, and recognize that “other people” doing things differently from me or you is not necessarily a societal apocalypse – maybe we’ll find solutions just in the process of letting some of our anger and frustration go.

We are the problem and we must be the solution.

Where are the Dads?   2 comments

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a woman. When women take men to task for being less-than-adequate parents, I’m usually the first to point out that they need to take their own inventory before they smear the male gender, but in dealing with the causation of our culture of violence, I found myself circling this issue a few too many times. To avoid overstepping my personal boundaries, let me introduce my husband as guest co-blogger and/or interviewee.  He is not responsible for everything written here, but he was a large contributor.

“It’s bad enough that you weren’t prepared to be a father … you might have considered using contraception to prevent that, Dad. But failing to be there for your kids and then not holding yourself accountable for whom they become is far worse.”

For a young boy, the most important human relationship is between himself and his father. The offspring looks up to his progenitor, learns from his example and hangs on his every word. Many young boys see their fathers as heroes wholly blameless and without flaw. To a young male, Dad is who he aspires to be.

Though no man is perfect, a father who sets a terrible example makes it so much harder for his young son to be a good man. The basic notions of what it takes to be a man are imprinted on the child from his experiences with his father. My father was (and remains) a functional alcoholic, womanizer and workaholic, and his lack of character led to estrangement from my mother (another topic altogether that I’ll leave in Lela’s capable hands) and lack of full attachment with me. He chose himself over his son, medicating himself with booze, wealth, wives, mistresses and possessions. He is an extremely charming and callow man who has both adoring fans and bitter enemies, two ex-wives and one who wishes she were a widow, four children (that he knows of) with various opinions of him, and siblings who keep their hands on their wallets when he comes around. It’s not all his fault. He had a poor example for a father too.

Despite experiencing firsthand the damage alcohol causes and a strong Christian faith that teaches me that alcohol is not an answer, whenever I’m faced with a stressful situation, my first instinct is to have a drink. My father impressed on me that men handle stress through alcohol, and that basic instinctual reaction is extremely difficult to overcome. Some fathers beat their sons. Others display a stoic lack of emotion, reducing the father-son relationship to a never-ending chase for approval on the part of the son. Patterns of behavior are learned and often repeated; however poorly the example is set, it defines the son’s life.

My father’s example to me was piss-poor, but I still needed him in my life. My adolescence was a troubled time, as adolescence often is. Not knowing my father well left me with huge holes in coming to know myself. I could give tons of examples where he neglected me – from living 1500 miles apart, to showing up once a year to drop me off at camp, to never once coming to see me play sports or act in a play, to scoffing at my skateboarding. I would have traded camp and the lavish gifts for a weekend of undivided attention from my sober father. He could have taught me to shave. Yeah, probably the most pivotal point of transforming from boy to man, I was alone because my father had neglected his duty to his son. I think of that now as my son deals with acne and searching for whiskers on his smooth young skin.

With single-parent families becoming more common, the traditional family unit is harder to find. Courts generally keep children with the mother in custody cases, but it remains imperative that the father strives to maintain access to his children, however limited. Yes, there are extreme situations where no contact is better, but in my opinion having a relationship with both parents is crucial. Even if one parent is a poor example, it is better for the child to have discovered this for themselves, as unanswered questions and biased perceptions impair the youngster’s development through adolescence and self-discovery. Lela’s older half-brother knew his father who sounds like he would have liked hanging out with my dad; in the end, though his father was a poor example, he chose to buck the trend knowing he was swimming against the flow. I don’t have that and it still hurts.

The onus is on parents to maintain these relationships in safe and mutually acceptable venues. When parents use children as weapons in custody battles, or allow their own opinions of each other to cloud their parental judgment, it is the child who suffers the most. Parents need to remember that just because somebody is a bad partner, it does not make him or her a bad parent.

A child needs to know who his parents are first-hand. A boy needs to know who his father is, unfiltered by those who either love him or hate him.

There are always going to be situations where the parents are absent through no fault of their own; they may be sent to war or pass away from an illness or tragic accident. Sometimes, absence is unavoidable. Addiction, laziness, or personal disputes between parents aren’t acceptable excuses. They will damage the children in ways adults cannot foresee.

Becoming a parent isn’t something that should be taken lightly. It is a lifelong commitment, and as a parent, your duty is to do your very best by your child. Your own wants and desires are secondary to the development and nurturing of your offspring. If, for instance, you have an addiction, you need to seek the help that is available — not tomorrow, not after “one last binge”—now. If you are in dispute with your ex-partner, resolve it. If you are scared your child will reject you, risk it.

Don’t be an absentee father. However long it has been, whatever mistakes you have made, pick up the phone and make the call. You’re a parent—and you owe that to your child.

In seeking to identify the problems that exist within our society that might cause young men to be so angry that they want to kill strangers, the absence of fathers in so many homes stood out to me. Dads, where are you?

 

Cultural Violence   Leave a comment

I’ve been a little caustic in my taking of the nation’s inventory. I hope not to disappoint in this posting.

America has been a violent culture for most of our history, but it’s usually been one-on-one violence of a personal nature. Someone got angry at someone over something trivial or important and violence seemed like the answer at the time. As a rule, violence did not take the form of a disturbed young man marching into a school, mall or movie theater to kill large numbers of people he didn’t know. That’s changed. Sandy Hook, Columbine, Nickel Mines, Aurora … there’s a long list of evidence that something has changed.

Oddly, statistics show that American society has, by and large, become less violent in other areas. For example, the gun-related homicide rate has dropped precipitously at the same time that gun ownership and concealed carry have increased phenomenally. And America is not alone in mass shootings (Norway and Cumbria England are just recent examples). If guns in the home are the problem, Alaska and Switzerland should have a mass shooting almost daily. We don’t. Look somewhere else.

To look for simplistic solutions is ridiculous. To see Sandy Hook as unique to its circumstances, apart from all the others, is to avoid the uncomfortable topic that this madness is fed and enabled not by the “gun culture” (who are overwhelmingly law-abiding people who don’t frequently shoot one another), but by American culture.

This is the American culture that has cheapened human life, snuffing it out when it is helpless and inconvenient and (in three states) old, infirm and burdensome. Nihilism permeates our popular entertainment; it’s everywhere in movies, television and song lyrics.

Evil is glamorized. Dexter is an extremely popular television series about a serial killer cleaning up crime. Thrill-kill video games feature barbaric violence and we think nothing of slipping them under the Christmas tree. Ever listen to the music thumping in your middle-schooler’s earbuds? Do we seriously believe that this stuff has little influence on attitudes and behaviors? Maybe in earlier generations it wouldn’t have, but in a generation of children largely raised by electronic media, how could it not? According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, the average American 18-year-old has seen 200,000 acts of violence, including 16,000 murders on television (not including video games).

Oddly, while we resist libertarianism politically, we Americans have trended that direction in matters of culture. Maybe we don’t consume violent entertainment ourselves, but if our neighbors do, that’s their business. We consider it intolerant to call out someone for allowing a group of kids to watch movies with R-rated violence at a sleepover. Maybe we’d keep our kid home from it, but we’d never say it was wrong for another family to show it. Judging someone else’s “choices” is apparently the worst sin one American can commit against another.

Do we think that if we hunker down, the culture we’ve created will leave us alone? These mass shootings suggest it won’t. It’s going to follow us into the movie theater, the church and the mall. It has already.

The fake debate over gun control avoids the real debate about the lurid culture that stokes the insanity of these shootings. We can’t hire enough guards to protect our kids, our movie theaters, our churches, and our malls from the effects of a culture that cheapens life and expects it not to affect our children.

Because I am a civil libertarian conservative constitutionalist, I don’t advocate for laws to address our cultural problems. I will submit that Congress cannot fix what’s wrong with us. Legislating morality doesn’t often work. See the history of Prohibition and the War on Drugs before you argue otherwise. The answer is not making entertainment I find objectionable illegal. For one thing, today I am disgusted with movies that glorify violence, but tomorrow I may be in the mood for a good shot-em-up. I don’t want someone in DC limiting my choices. I don’t think restricting liberty is the answer.

So what is?

I think we are the answer to the problems we have caused. We, individually, need to examine ourselves in a searching and moral inventory to discover were we individually have screwed up and need to make changes. Each of us in our own homes needs to that our kids don’t need to fill their impressionable heads with unfiltered and unexamined simulated violence. Each of us needs to have uncomfortable conversations with our kids about their attitudes toward human life and violence because, trust me, they’ve already seen plenty of simulated murder in entertainment and “not my kid” is no longer an acceptable default position to take. I know my 14-year-old son’s attitude toward human life because we’ve talked, sometimes after watching violent movies together just so we could have the conversation. But if you’re letting X-Box raise your kid so you don’t have to, you don’t know what they might be thinking and you should.

Once we’ve addressed ourselves and our families, we each need to start having uncomfortable conversations with our extended families and friends about their attitudes toward violence and parenting, not to force them through governmental tyranny to change their behavior, but to encourage them to examine their lives and make changes appropriate to them. From there, we may also need to converse in our communities about our collective attitudes toward abortion and euthanasia that makes life seem cheap and disposable rather than precious and worthy of protection.

This isn’t a new idea. There was once a time, not so far in the past, when individuals, families and small groups (churches, neighborhoods, towns) lived lives of self-control and interconnectedness where violence was far less common than it is today. We need to honestly ask ourselves why kids in past generations could frequently bring guns to school to shoot rabbits on the way home and never feel compelled to turn those guns on their classmates. The past may be the only dead thing that smells sweet, but it’s also the only proven pattern for success.

What have we thrown out in our rush toward modernity that might have prevented these tragedies?

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