Newtown Tragedy Exposes our Deep Societal Flaws AgainBy Chris Schumerth for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
“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 know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently. When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth? We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships right in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”
-Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn, in a press conference the week of a teammate’s suicide
Belfast, Northern Ireland. There is no other appropriate place than this to start: my heart melts for the students and staff who lost their lives last Friday in Newton, Connecticut. And their families who have unimaginable grieving ahead of them. It is all confusing and so very sad.
And this just days after Jacob Roberts killed two others and himself in an Oregon mall. These things seem to come in bunches, don’t they?
It is not lost on me that these shooters tend to be men. As a society we could use that as one more piece of evidence to vilify masculinity–a trap I may have fallen into several years ago.Or we could open ourselves up to the possibility that as difficult as it surely is to be a child or woman in this world, for very different reasons it is equally difficult to be a man. All too many of us grow up fatherless, and by that I mean either physical or emotional absence.
The problem, however, is not reducible to men. It is really about this society we’ve built. It’s time to own up to the fact that this sort of thing—teenagers and men in their twenties walking into schools and killing people—did not used to happen.
I suspect we are, in large part, lying in the bed we’ve made, as is almost always the case. No, the past isn’t perfect; let’s not mistake this for a conversation about nostalgia. We do not need to return to disallowing women to vote or own property or racially-motivated slavery (although let’s be honest, plenty of similar injustices unfortunately still happen today). But in this pendulum swing of throwing “it all out,” we have failed to guard our most important intimacies—our relationships with the earth, and our spouses, children, and neighbors—and now we are reaping consequences of lostness, destruction, and chaos, all in a world of instant media that broadcasts the tragedy to us in live time.
One of the first words I read about Newtown came in a Facebook post from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, which read: “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?”
Now, I respect Kristof’s obvious concern for humanity, even if I don’t necessarily always agree with his policy leanings. And there is certainly a place for the gun-policy conversation, but reading this message literally hurt me inside. The access to guns isn’t all that recent. Admittedly, if I had to vote today on a law that would make machine guns (I’m all for hunting, so I certainly wouldn’t give up shotguns) more difficult to acquire—or even illegal— my vote would be yes.
It is not lost on me, though, that so many of the same people who argue that legalizing marijuana will not increase usage, will now be saying that legalizing guns does increase usage, and therefore we need to outlaw them. I’ll let you decide which one of these views is misguided; frankly, I don’t even know myself, but I do know that it all misses the real point.
Kristof’s question hurt because the problem is so much deeper than a question that implies that with the “right” law, this tragedy wouldn’t have happened (never mind that criminals always find a way to exist one step in front of the laws). Simple problem, simple solution. But it’s not a simple problem or solution, and I have a feeling it implicates more areas of our lives—basic assumptions we so enjoy trusting—than we’d care to admit. And a way forward might look a lot more like a way backwards than we’d be comfortable with, lovers of “progress” that we are.
This dilemma illustrates well why I have so little hope for top-down policies to solve our real problems, the ones that make us tremble and fear and cry at night. Our legislation so often medicates effects and pretends we are solving the causes. Kristof’s question, and any new law we could write, would do nothing to acknowledge, let alone confront, that we are a society of depressed people, grasping for every numbing device in sight. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to shoot people; lives and schools and communities and churches and jobs and rejections and illnesses lead people there.
I know this this all too intimately, as my family and I missed my brother until we lost him. We, like our culture, scoffed at rootedness; in trying to be everywhere, we were nowhere, and it killed one of us. And worse, he took someone else’s life with his own. Acknowledging my own implication does nothing to diminish my older brother’s own responsibility for his act. But somewhere along the line, we lost his connection long before we lost his breathing.
We live in a world that makes it increasingly difficult to connect with each other as we depend more and more on machines and harried and empty professional lives. As we wallow in the debt we take on to 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 the weekend. We have sex as if it is not linked to procreation, then after we birth the children that result, we throw them into every babysitting device we can find and give them anti-depressants when they hit thirteen. Is the deconstruction of family and our sexuality really as liberating as we thought it would be?
All too many of us, myself included, do not know at a deep enough level our siblings, our kids, or the spouse who sleeps next to us, let alone a neighbor, or–God forbid!–an enemy. We do not spend enough time sitting around a table of food we first grew and then prepared together. We need to look into each other’s eyes and lives; we need to confront the discomfort of conflict. How many of us can honestly say we ask the tough questions to those around us? Or respond well when others ask us? To do so would be to acknowledge our need for others’ speaking into our lives, and maybe even to listen to “value judgments.”
After something as shocking as Newtown, it is so often said by those who knew the perpetrator that they can’t believe “he” could be capable of the violence, or that they had no idea things were that bad. But do we really have permission to know each other that well? In order to do this, we would have to move slower and be less concerned about climbing some proverbial ladder that takes us even further away from home. But it’s easier to hide, and that is mostly what we do. Then, we’re shocked when someone around us gives up his life, saying–in effect—“Look at me!” one more time.
Our policies–and our technology and culture–so often operate under the lie that we will legislate and technologize ourselves to perfection one day. We try to relieve ourselves from the very things we need: the vulnerability of intimacy, commitment to a real and tangible locality, a respect for limits, and a practice of gratitude. In his thoughtful essay, “The Politics of the Clothesline,” Skyler Reidy describes these two visions as a clash of industrial versus agrarian ideals. The industrial perspective, which is our default mode today, is encapsulated in the biblical story of Babel–one of the truest stories ever told– and we’re losing so many of our children, friends, and family members en route to that mythical perfect world, where we can say with finality, “I am the God of my existence.”Why does it surprise us when the machine technology we so worship can also be used to kill us?
To be known and loved is possibly the greatest gift the One who made us offers. It is there and probably only there that we can find enough authentic grace, empathy, and purpose (not to be confused with tolerance or sentimentalism) to keep on keeping on. Make no mistake: it is scary, because in order to embrace a different kind of life, we would have to give up control; we would have to adjust our days according to our emotions, our resources, the weather, illness, or other “inconvenient” facts of life. But in accepting those limits, we might also find a world of contentment and delight.
Chris Schumerth is a writer who grew up in Indiana but is now working on a fellowship in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He earned his M.A. in English from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in August of 2012. You can find his blog at www.schumes.blogspot.com.