If you have a child or love a child, if you are a teacher or love a teacher, you’re breaking under the weight of this day.
When news broke today of the shooting in Connecticut, the emotional responses flew thick and fast. Parents desperate to hold their children, imagining what it would be like if their sons and daughters never came home, never opened the presents waiting under the Christmas tree. Teachers living the nightmare in their imaginations, solemn in the knowledge that if their students were attacked, they would die to protect them, leaving their own families grieving and torn. And then, the politics–depending on where your beliefs lie, this is either a damning argument for gun control, or proof positive that it’s not guns that are the problem, but people.
I’m finding myself equally dismayed by both extremes. The anti-gun rhetoric starts to lose me when it starts sounding militant, but I’m also not convinced that my right to own an ouzi is going to make the world a kinder, gentler place. Yeah, I’m funny like that. And don’t get me started on the idea that God is punishing us for our sinful ways. If you want to get Biblical, God is the one who notices the fall of a sparrow–not the one who smacks it out of the sky.
We are broken, divided. We can’t even agree on how to stop an armed gunman from walking into a school and slaughtering our children. And they are our children.
We’ve managed to isolate ourselves, compartmentalize our lives. We work in little boxes, come home to little boxes. We like people who are like us, and we hole up in our comfort zones, our prejudices, the safety of our fears. We used to live in community. There was a time in our not too distant past when we knew the people we lived with, when we had to know the people around us because we couldn’t escape them by diving into cyberspace to find people who like the same TV shows we like, who coddle us and sympathize with us because they can, because they don’t have to actually deal with our crap in any real, immediate way. There was a time when we couldn’t jump in a car or on a plane and leave behind the quirky, weird, boring, flawed, unremarkable, real people around us. Our relationships now are sanitized in a way they’ve never been in all of human history. We can recreate ourselves through social media, build followings, profess our undying love for online personas. All of this can be really powerful, really positive, even life-changing. But it goes pathological when it starts to replace the relationships we were designed to have, the connections we’re hardwired to make. We’re made to look into each other’s eyes, to touch, to hug, to connect on infinite levels. We’re not meant to live in our nuclear families with no reference to the outside world. We’re not meant to herd together with people who have the same likes and dislikes. We started out in tribes, in groups of people riddled with individual quirks who had to get along with each other or go extinct.
Now, we’re broken apart. We fracture along strange lines. We’re proud to be fans, to identify ourselves with the products that are marketed to us. If we don’t like how things are going, we can pick up and leave. In this brave new world, we can break ties with an ease the human race has never before experienced. We can avoid the weirdos, the sickos, shut ourselves up and arm ourselves and stockpile food and weapons and fear and hate.
This world has always been a dangerous place. In grad school, as a medievalist, I read historical accounts that made Law and Order SVU look tame. But the phenomenon of school shootings seems to be a relatively new twist on human brokenness. And it keeps happening. This is not okay. We have got to do something. But the answer isn’t locking up all the guns, or distributing them, either. We have got to figure out why this is happening. What makes a human being walk into a building full of other human beings, especially children, and gun them down? What brings a human being to the point of such utter brokenness that this broken behavior seems like an answer? What is the question that person is asking in the first place?
One school shooter is an anomaly, but this many? Something in our culture is broken. Something has failed. Somewhere along the line, our ability to disconnect has begun to consume us. I’m not saying that anyone’s to blame for not guessing what would happen, for not suspecting that someone might snap. But we are to blame–all of us–for enabling a culture of disconnectedness, a culture in which a broken person can access a weapon but can’t access help, a culture in which a fellow human being can break unnoticed, a culture in which our response to violence is violence. We kill killers, we bomb bombers, we buy guns to protect ourselves from gunmen. We treat the symptom but not the disease. We argue about abortion instead of working toward a society in which unwanted pregnancies don’t happen. We take antacids instead of eating healthy food in moderation. We even medicate our dogs for depression and anxiety so that we can box them up alone in our houses while we’re gone all day, working to afford the homes we do little more than sleep in.
What if we broke down the barriers, tore down the walls that separate us? What if we connected with each other, reached out, locked eyes, held hands, so that no one was alone?
Tonight, a teacher told me that if children in her class were gunned down, she would want to be, too, because it would be too hard to walk back into that classroom alive. This is the best in us–to connect so deeply with others that their lives become our own, that our worth is wrapped up in theirs.
Everybody keeps saying, “Hug your kids. Hold them tight.” I guess what I’m saying is, hug all the kids. Hug your nosy neighbor. Hug your obnoxious coworker. Hug every single teacher you see, because they are walking around with nightmares inside their heads right now, and because if it came down to it, they would choose not to come home if that meant your children would make it home safely.
Better yet, step outside your comfort zone and connect with that hippie organic farmer down the road, the card-carrying NRA member with the pickup that’s an arsenal on wheels. They’re not who you think they are. Break down the barriers. Break the stereotypes. If we live in community with each other, if we truly connect, if everyone is loved and valued, the world will change for the better.
What if, instead of worrying about guns, we worried about each other? What if the rights we cared most about protecting were each other’s? What if we were strong enough not to break in the first place?