Like so many of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about the shooting that occurred just a few days ago. Once again we all find ourselves in a numb confusion. Like a pack of circling vultures, the familiar rhythms of questions we know all too well begin again: why did this happen again? What could we have done to prevent this? What do we do now? Thoughts and prayers flow again alongside louder calls for gun reform.
Let me start by pointing out a painfully obvious thing, but one that I think gets lost in the heat of our confusion: no one wants their loved ones to die like this. No matter if you’re Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, Christian, Muslim, Jew, or atheist, I hope we can all agree on that. No one, regardless of their beliefs, deserves to die like that. I know this almost seems frivolous, but I feel it’s important to point out that at the root of all of this: we don’t want fundamentally different things here.
More and more these days, it feels to me like our public conversations could be summed up by the words of Macbeth: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It feels like we’ve reached a stalemate, and no one wants to admit that, so we just keep furiously debating but not moving the needle forward because we have to do something in the face of such horrors. Legislation doesn’t move forward, attitudes become more entrenched, and we just make a loud ruckus while just wait for the next one. Maybe we’re arguing about the wrong things. To paraphrase Tony Robbins, if you want a better answer, ask a better question. Maybe we’re not making progress because we’re asking the wrong questions.
Maybe the questions we might be better asking have nothing to do with guns. Perhaps the questions should be a bit deeper, a bit more nuanced. Perhaps the question isn’t what to do about guns (though I think we should also talk about things like why America collectively owns almost half of the worlds guns). Maybe we should spend less time debating from our partisan camps what to do about guns and start having more conversations about how we feel so alone, so isolated, so disconnected. Maybe we should start talking with each other about our pains, our fears, the things that hurt us. Here’s something else I think we could all agree on: healthy people don’t commit mass murder. Healthy, integrated people generally do less shitty things. Maybe the gun violence we see is an indicator of our health as a society.
We have an anger problem.
Anger isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Anger is a close kin to fear, and both have served us well as a species. Without fear alerting us to potential dangers and the quickening and clarifying powers of anger, we likely would have never moved our way from the bottom of the food chain. Anger and fear are powerful tools; but like the guns we wield, so often we’re not taught well to respect and handle the immensely powerful tools we hold. Anger and fear are powerful but blunt force tools. Imagine trying to perform a delicate brain surgery with a sledge hammer.
I feel like as a society we really suck at unpleasant emotions. We want things to be pleasant, easy, polite. We suck even more at connection.
As I dig deeper into some of these questions, I start to touch on things I’ve been ruminating on lately, things that I’m uncomfortable with and wish weren’t so. For all our beauties, we are a violent species. I don’t think there’s much debate there. Our history is littered with stories and examples of just how violent and cruel we can be to our fellow humans. I think most of us don’t want to admit to this, but within each of us is the capability of violent and horrible things. We hope it never comes to that, but dig deep enough, think about it deeply enough, and we realize that each of us carries the capacity for great violence. Of course it’s not an inevitability, and each of us is tasked in this life with learning to contend with it, but we do disservice to ourselves by denying it.
Anger that isn’t dealt with festers and grows. In an ideal situation, anger would arise, one acts accordingly and appropriately, the anger subsides, and one moves on. If you’re like me (and I suspect a lot of people in our country), anger arises, one suppresses it because of cultural baggage, one moves on thinking it’s no big deal, one yells at the person in front of them at the traffic light for not paying attention and making one miss the light. Our anger gets so misplaced because we haven’t been trained (or maybe given permission) to express it appropriately in the moment it arises. We’ve instead been taught that “nice people don’t get angry”, and since nice people don’t get angry, and we want to be nice people, we stuff that shit down and end up kicking the dog weeks later.
We don’t do anger well in America. We don’t do uncomfortable emotions well in America. This is why we need great art, great movies, great music, with courageous creators willing to face the uncomfortable questions. It can feel incredible frivolous to make art when people were just gunned down in a public space, but it’s the call of the artists in our society to give us permission and space to feel the things we’re not supposed to or able to, to explore the contours of the dark, to give us a chance to collectively grieve, to feel angry.
I grew up in the suburbs. You don’t do anger in the suburbs. Everything is nice and well kept, lawns are mowed, HOA’s ensure our property values don’t decline, we smile at the neighbors we rarely talk to (let alone know the names of), and everyone locks themselves into their safe, isolated enclaves every night. We might venture next door if we need some sugar or an egg, but for the most part everyone stays isolated. I’ll be honest, I’m uncomfortable with anger and violence. Maybe everyone is…I can only speak from my experience. But part of my discomfort with it is my lack of exposure to it and knowing how to properly handle it. Just like a gun, anger is a tool that needs to be treated with a great deal of respect and care, and one needs to be trained in how to handle it.
Yesterday, the day after this latest shooting occurred, we were navigating all the normal things like making cookies for one of our kids’ birthdays, sacrificing time from an overburdened schedule for PTA meetings, and trying to field all of the responsibilities that come with owning pets and businesses and just generally being a human being. It felt so frivolous to do those simple, everyday things when such a tragedy had occurred. But I was also reminded of how counter-intuitive reality often is. If these events are just further evidence of the fabric of our society pulling apart at the seams, then perhaps the very best thing each of us can do RIGHT NOW is to invest in our communities to make them the kinds of places that are less and less likely for these kinds of tragedies to happen. Maybe we can work to creating a society that feels less compelled to need so many guns. Every community needs to take responsibility for itself and its residents. Each of us needs to take responsibility for our neighbors. If the fabric of society is ripping at the seams, it falls on us to mend it.
Emotional intelligence, empathy, vulnerability, connection: these are the things when practiced in greater depth by all of us that could lessen the occurrence of these horrible events.
What actions do each of us need to take, what responsibilities to each other do we need to take more seriously to create the kind of society that makes these tragedies less likely? It falls to us, and it is possible.
What kind of questions should we be asking? How about “what kind of cookies do you like?”