I'll say first of all that I agree that we need to take a serious look at our gun culture in this country. We also need to take a serious look at how we handle mental health problems and our understanding of developmental disorders.
I don't know if the conversation is worse this time around -- or if I'm simply more offended by the accusations being leveled at one another, given the fact that so many children died and so many educators demonstrated exactly what dedication means. I appreciated Phil Plait's blog post at Slate, because he took the time to suggest that this is a large, complex issue that implicates every single one of us. And I agree with that.
But what I'm seeing everywhere is even more complex than simply talking about the culture of violence that permeates American life. And I think it's important to move beyond that, because when we start talking about a culture of violence, we start talking about things like censoring video games and television shows -- and that's no solution for what ails us.
What I think is lost in everything -- and this is demonstrated by the vitriol aimed in all directions online -- is that we have radically transformed our understanding of what it means to be a human being in connection with other humans. America was founded on the mythology of the rugged individual, and I think that there's some strength to that figure -- we believe that we are not bound by ancestry to a certain caste or social strata. Children of single mothers can go on to become Presidents of the most powerful nation on earth. People can rise from virtually nothing to being influential inventors. Each person, just given the chance, can make it.
But of course, we can't. And we won't because we've so fetishized this figure of the individual to the point that we now view individualism as a zero-sum-game. Our political conversation over the last year has demonstrated that idea, given the zeal with which any number of lawmakers have suggested that we need to eliminate the social safety net. Our competitiveness in this individualism means that there must be winners and losers in life -- not just in sports and board games.
We presume that when we suffer, we do not have to think about the suffering of others -- because ours is the most important. We treat every national tragedy as our personal tragedy, whether or not we were involved or were a thousand miles away. We take these moments as opportunities to show that we are suffering, that we are sympathetic towards those who are victimized -- but we show it all too often with signs of how much we hate a certain group of people, because we are also so convinced that we are right. We must be.
We must be right.
And that's the problem. We take that hatred as a sign of righteousness. We take that hatred as a sign our of own superiority.
Sometimes we need to hate. It is an emotion -- and it is quite natural in times of great injustice and suffering.
But when we are trying to solve the problems of our cruel, cold world, we cannot simply stop at that moment of hatred. And we certainly cannot act out of hatred. I would generally prefer that we not even speak out of hatred. If all we see is our anger and our own righteousness, we lose sight of the single most important thing about all of us: we are all human.
We have at least that in common.
The Buddha tells us that life is suffering. And this is something worth remembering. It is not a suggestion that life just sucks. It is the suggestion that we suffer in this world, whether in moments of horrific tragedy or in moments of spiritual emptiness. Our goal should not be, I think, to revel in this suffering or blame others for the suffering, but to look deeply at what is causing the suffering and work together to help alleviate it. The Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote this about Jesus:
There was a person who was born nearly two thousand years ago. He was aware that suffering was going on in him and in his society, and he did not hide himself from the suffering. Instead, he came out to investigate deeply the nature of suffering, the causes of suffering. Because he had the courage to speak out, he became the teacher of many generations.
And the work to alleviate suffering requires true compassion, true grace. We must extend to one another those things -- and we must extend them to ourselves. It requires us to recognize that each and every one of us is connected. Even if we do not view it as a spiritual connection, we need to remember that those connections exist. Those things that we do affect those around us -- and those far away from us. We participate in a larger culture that requires us to be self-sufficient, that requires us to think that asking for help of any sort of a weakness, that requires us to hate that which is confusing or different. A culture that requires us to hate those who would do us harm.
And we are separated irrevocably by that culture.
But perhaps it is not irrevocable. The Washington Post reports one of the most beautiful moments of grace and compassion:
One parent who lost a child, Robbie Parker, spoke to reporters Saturday evening. He expressed sympathy for Lanza’s family, saying, “I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you.”
Parker said that Emilie, the daughter he lost, was blond and blue-eyed and could light up a room. “All those who had the pleasure to meet her would agree that the world was better because she was in it,” Parker said.
He recalled the last time he saw Emilie, on Friday morning as he headed to work. He had been teaching her Portuguese, and so their last conversation was in that language.
“She said that she loved me, and she gave me a kiss and I was out the door,” said Parker, whose family moved to Newtown eight months ago. “I’m so blessed to be her dad.”
Even as this father grieves for his daughter, even as he tells us a story that makes us all grieve for a life cut very, very short, he extends compassion for people who are currently objects of so much easy hatred.
We are all suffering. Always.
All we can do is extend compassion.